In Their Own Words: What Students Found in the Jordanian Desert, and Why They’re Going Back

As part of Champlain’s Core curriculum—the college’s take on traditional general education courses—students take courses designed to build perspective, critical thinking, curiosity, and collaboration. Nearly every semester, at least one of roughly 30 sections of each Core class includes a brief study abroad experience. In Spring 2023, Graphic Design & Visual Communication student Maeve McGuinness ’24 and Degree Design Lab student Ronan Furuta ’26, who’s studying film and visual communication design, were among those who traveled to Jordan in Professor Gary Scudder’s COR 204: Theoretical Perspectives class.

For them, an experience on the trip inspired them to take action, take to their professional talents, and bring awareness and support to the local community in Azraq, Jordan. 

Below, we asked McGuinness and Furuta to describe their experience, current efforts, and plans to return in their own words. 

Cliffs in the desert in Jordan

By Maeve McGuinness ’24 & Ronan Furuta ’26

Last March, we had the opportunity to visit Jordan as a part of an undergraduate COR course at Champlain College. While we loved watching sunrises in the Wadi Rum, visiting mosques in Amman, and exploring the ancient ruins scattered across the country, the most impactful part of our trip was visiting the Azraq Education Center.

Based in Azraq, a tiny town on the outskirts of Jordan, the Azraq Education Center provides life-changing education and services to Syrian refugee children who have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict. From the moment we stepped foot on their beautiful campus, the students flocked around us, wanting to show their classrooms and play structures. We spent much longer than anticipated that day laughing with the kids and listening to the center’s staff enthusiastically describe the various programs and services they are able to provide for their community.

Champlain College faculty rest in the shade outside of the Azraq Education Center.

The impressive center, established by local women, seeks to compensate for students’ lack of educational opportunities and provide them with skills to graduate, find jobs, and establish roots in Jordan. They are constantly innovating and improving their state-of-the-art campus to achieve this goal. In addition to being the first site of education available for refugee children, the Azraq Center has become an economic engine for this small town, providing jobs and stimulating the local economy.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the first thing we noticed about the center: just how happy and full of joy their students are. These kids, who have been forced to flee their homes and have experienced all of the trauma that conflict induces, have been given an opportunity to be children once again. They have a space to run, play, and enjoy themselves.

We rode away from the center that day in an inspired silence. We knew we needed to do something to try to support this beautiful place.

Our first initiative to support the Azraq Education Center was hosting a Jordanian cuisine popup dinner. We gathered recipes of the food that we loved so much during our trip and served them to the public at a community kitchen in the Old North End. We were thrilled to raise over $2,700 during our first night to support the center’s purchasing of computers. We will be hosting a second pop-up dinner on December 3 at the Common Roots Homestead in South Burlington.

Children at Azraq Education Center play basketball

Our second initiative, which we are currently raising funds for, is a much bigger lift. We are organizing a narrative filmmaking workshop for the older students at the center while making our own 20-minute documentary film that answers the question, What happens when a small team of women decide to do something about the Syrian refugee crisis?

We’ve talked a lot with the center’s administration, and they have made clear what an impact enrichment programs and passion projects have on their students. We chose to teach filmmaking not only because it is a powerful means of self-expression, but because it is a highly technical and collaborative art form.

In the session, we will go over the basics of filmmaking and narrative storytelling, and by the end, the students will have conceived, shot, and edited their very own short films. This collaborative, hands-on, and technical education aligns with the center’s goals of providing an enriching and skill-building education to their students. We are partnering with the Media Factory and Champlain’s School of Social Innovation to develop our curriculum for this workshop.

We plan on returning to the center in October of 2024 for two weeks to teach the workshop and work on the documentary film

A Champlain student plays with children at the Azraq Education Center.

About Our Film: Aljudhur 

Our documentary Aljudhur (Arabic for “roots”) will highlight humanness—not fear, as current media often portrays refugees—and how by being kind to one another we can lift each other up. The film will explore what happens when women from a small Jordanian town near the Syrian border collaborate to create a vibrant refugee education center, the Azraq Education Center, while simultaneously trying to navigate the contours of their own lives.

How can they assure the center, which has become a hub of community development, remains sustainable in the future? How can they balance their desire to see the center grow with their life aspirations beyond this project? The film will show  just a few people are capable of creating such a huge, real-world impact. This documentary won’t just be an inspiring story of activism, it will also be a crucial story about refugees.

The town of Azraq, Jordan, at dusk.

Our connection and relationship with the center is an important aspect of creating this film. In the past, the center has had negative experiences with visiting filmmakers who make assumptions and comparisons across differing cultural values. With Aljuhur, we are making intentional choices to create a transparent and open relationship between us and the center’s administration to maintain the creative and journalistic integrity of this project. We are doing this through having consistent meetings with the center and making sure to discuss our intentions and plans with them throughout the process. The importance of transparency and intentional navigation and recognition of cultural differences is something that we came to understand during our trip to Jordan with our COR class in the spring. 

Once we finish the film, we will plan a series of outreach events designed to share our work with local schools and community organizations focusing on Islamic/American cultural relationships. Specifically, we plan to screen the film at local colleges in Vermont (Champlain, Middlebury, St. Michaels, Vermont State University) as well as high schools in greater Chittenden County. In addition to the educational institutions, we plan to showcase the film at cultural sites like the Islamic Society of Vermont and the Vermont Council of World Affairs. We will also be distributing the film through the TV channel run by the Media Factory, a local media maker organization.


McGuiness and Furuta are working with Degree Design Lab professors to apply for film grants to complete the project. They have also established a GoFundMe for the project and are grateful for your support and interest. 


Meet the Team

Ronan Furuta ’26 // Degree Design Lab // Director, Producer, Cinematographer, Editor 

Ronan is a Degree Design Lab Major at Champlain College. He has been making documentary films for the past eight years with films screened in festivals across the country. Currently, he is the editor and associate producer of a documentary film directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Kelly Nyks. The film is set to be nationally distributed in 2024. Kelly and Ronan are also collaborating on piloting other documentary series and features. Previously, Ronan taught at and developed curriculum for a wilderness primitive skills school for five years. He coordinated and trained teams of instructors and advised them on their curriculum. This work has provided him with experience teaching hands-on skills (like filmmaking) and working with students of all ages.  When not in the studio, Ronan loves going on long hikes with his camera. View Ronan’s reel.

Maeve McGuinness ’24 // Graphic Design & Visual Communication // Director, Producer, Camera Operator

Maeve McGuinness has been a resident advisor at Champlain College for the past three years, two of which she served as the lead resident advisor of her area. Maeve spent her time in college studying Graphic Design, where she enjoyed cultivating rapport with her professors as well as developing her design sensibilities. These design sensibilities will offer important compositional knowledge within the scope of creating a documentary film with a strong aesthetic draw. Additionally, Maeve coordinated the Roots for Refugees pop-up dinner last spring. She worked with a team of five to host a dinner serving over sixty individuals and raised over $2,400 for the Azraq Education fund. As a coordinator of this event, she was able to refine her skills in budgeting, team building, and outreach.

Dr. Cynthia Brandenburg // Faculty Advisor

Cyndi was trained as a neuroscientist, but currently teaches an array of integrated and inquiry-based courses that are arguably quite different from her more traditional academic roots. She is particularly interested in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in general, and Interdisciplinarity and Integration in particular, with an eye towards fusing such seemingly disparate fields as the Sciences and the Humanities.  Cyndi is a Professor in Champlain College’s Core Division, Lead Faculty for the Degree Design Lab, and  serves as the Assistant Provost.  In that role, she works to support curricular innovations that are interdisciplinary, customizable, and predicated on experiential and project-based learning.

Dr. Michael Kelly // Faculty Advisor

Mike is a recovering English professor turned interdisciplinarian whose teaching and scholarship centers on the application of integrative thinking to better understand the ways systems and structures shape the larger world.  He holds the rank of Professor in the Core Division and Champlain College and is a lead faculty in the school’s Degree Design Lab, a degree program that allows students to customize their academic and  professional interests in ways that prepare them for the cross-cutting skills necessary for an uncertain future of work.

Kelly Nyks // Film Industry Advisor

Kelly Nyks is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and New York Times best selling writer who has worked across the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Arctic and Asia on films which investigate some of the most critical issues of our time including climate change, social inequality and institutionalized injustice. Feature titles include Requiem for the American Dream, The Age of Consequences, Disruption, Do the Math, Disobedience, Split: A Divided America, and Split: A Deeper Divide, which have aired in over 50 countries on over 20 broadcasters including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, IFC, PBS, and Starz. They have enjoyed both critical acclaim and audience favorite awards at marquee festivals worldwide including Sundance, Tribeca, IDFA, HotDocs, Sheffield, AFI Docs, CPHDOX, DOC NYC. A US State Department Cultural Ambassador, he recently served as Artist in Residence in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.

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