In 2018, alumnus Lamar Shambley ’10 founded his non-profit organization Teens of Color Abroad (TOCA) to encourage language learning and provide needed guidance to Black and Brown teenagers aspiring to study abroad. The Brooklyn native’s passion for language learning blossomed in his hometown.
“I was born in Brooklyn and here in New York, Spanish is everywhere,” Shambley said. “I developed an affinity for the language at an early age. It wasn’t until middle school and high school where I really dove into the grammar and actually holding conversations.”
Shambley was introduced to the idea of studying abroad in high school, but was unable to go due to financial reasons. He carried the hope of studying abroad into college and was able to pursue his dream through the College of William & Mary’s Somos.
“The academic advisor for Somos sponsored my first passport,” Shambley said. “I’d never been out of the country before I came to William and Mary. He provided me with my first passport and my first opportunity to travel abroad. At William and Mary, I was able to get the experience on top of the language learning.”
Somos is a student-run research organization on campus focused on conducting “sustainable, community-based public health research”. The organization’s primary focus is on the town of Esfuerzo del Paraíso in the Dominican Republic. According to their website, pre-COVID-19, members of the club would travel to the Dominican Republic and “gather data, conduct interviews, identify needs, and collaborate with the community.” During his time with Somos, Shambley recognized the many potential possibilities available through language learning.
“OK, you’re learning Spanish: what can you do with that?” Shambley said. “You can now translate for doctors. You can now do ethnographic research in the community. You can now build a community across languages.”
Following his experience with Somos, Shambley studied abroad again with the College’s six-month-long semester program in Sevilla, Spain. During his time in Spain, Shambley lived with a host family, studied at Universidad Pablo de Olavide, and interned at Movimiento por La Paz where he would teach English to Spanish speaking children.
“I was teaching English to a child, I believe she was about six or seven years old, which was actually a really great way to practice my Spanish and make mistakes,” Shambley said. “I would be making mistakes in Spanish and she would just be laughing hysterically then teach me how to say things the right way.”
Through his course work and internship, Shambley felt that he was able to connect more with the people of Sevilla than he would have been able to through a traditional study abroad program.
“It was a really cool way to connect with the people of Sevilla,” Shambley said. “For many people, when they study abroad they immediately find the other Americans, connect with the other Americans and then stay with them. I’m really thankful that for my study abroad experience, I got to really work with the local community.”
Shambley recalls one of the most memorable programs at the Universidad Pablo de Olavide, known as exchange hours, where exchange students would be matched with locals and other exchange students to give them the opportunity to talk to one another and build lifelong connections.
“I went to one of the horas de intercambio and I got to meet a couple of people,” Shambley said. “One guy was from Sevilla and the other girl, she was from France. We connected and they just started inviting me to everything, so I would start to go to barbecues or bars with them… Actually, I’m still in touch with these people to this day. We have a group chat together and they’ve been supportive of TOCA which is really cool.”
Following graduation from the College, Shambley returned back to Brooklyn to become a high school Spanish teacher and promote to Black and Brown students the benefits of language learning. It was by sharing his passion for language learning and struggles with studying abroad with his students that Shambley recognized the need for an organization like TOCA.
“When I began teaching high school Spanish, it was my students who said ‘Mr. Shambley, how did you learn Spanish so well?’” Shambley said. “And I said, ‘I studied abroad in college and it changed my life, you’ve got to do the same.’ I started doing research on high school study abroad programs and saw that many of these organizations didn’t cater to students who look like my students and the leadership of these organizations didn’t look like me either… Seeing the language learning divide, seeing the low participation numbers for Black students in study abroad programs and reflecting on my own experiences then listening to what my students wanted, it was just clear to me that this is what needs to be created in order to make a difference.”
Shambley believes that language learning can have enormous benefits for students by helping them develop needed skills for global citizenship such as cultural empathy and a sense of connectedness.
“There’s so much power in learning a second language,” Shambley said. “Learning a language breeds cultural empathy. More often than not, when people study another language, they get to know more about people from different backgrounds and find ways to connect with people.”
Shambley also finds that language learning is especially important to Black and Brown students as it provides them agency in telling their unique experience to those around the world.
“I think that our experience is so rich and so important to share with other people who don’t know about the Black American experience,” Shambley said. “To be honest, there is no one Black American experience. Our stories deserve to be told. When you learn another language, you build cultural empathy, but you also get to build community. What that looks like for me is being able to explain systemic racism in a country that doesn’t often think about it in their own language.”
Since its creation, TOCA has helped over 300 students, sponsored 20 passports, and awarded $10,000.00 in scholarships. When COVID-19 hit just two years into Shambley’s journey, he found creative ways to connect with students and promote language learning.
“I’m thankful that I’m a millennial and grew up at the very beginning stages of the internet,” Shambley said. “I have been able to address educational gaps that exist. ‘What was I doing when I was 16?’ I was in chat rooms. I was meeting people from different countries and practicing my Spanish on MSN Messenger. So, how can we do that virtually for students in a safe space? We haven’t been able to travel but we’ve now created this virtual language learning program where students can study languages with refugees from around the world.”
Shambley shares that the design for several programs TOCA offers were directly inspired by his time abroad, specifically the emphasis on cross-cultural connection. Currently TOCA offers virtual language learning classes in Spanish, French and Arabic taught by refugees from various countries including Syria, Senegal, Uganda, Venezuela, South Sudan and more. Students also participate in cultural exchange workshops with their teachers in order to learn about them and their home countries. Shambley believes this aspect of the program is especially important given the current social climate surrounding immigration and refugees.
“In the US, we currently have the second largest Spanish speaking population in the world, and by 2050, we’re going to have the largest,” Shambley said. “When we think about where this country is going, it is growing into a culturally diverse, linguistically diverse society, so it’s important that we prepare our students for the future. With the Trump administration, we are hearing things about ‘illegal people’ and just vitriol that’s being spewed from high places about people from different backgrounds than us, and I don’t want young folks to feel like that’s normal.”
Shambley in partnership with several other alumni from the College created programming centered around music, dance, and cooking to connect students to a variety of cultures. With Mama Boakye ‘07, Shambley created Collabs where guest chefs prepare traditional dishes from their native countries. With Juan Jorquera ‘11, Shambley started a monthly event called Fresh Fridays where DJ’s from different cultures play traditional and modern music on Twitch. Shambley is very grateful for the outpouring of support from the College community
“I’m really so grateful and glad this has been a William and Mary endeavor in so many ways.” Shambley said.
As for the future of TOCA, Shambley hopes to continue to expand the online program and soon sponsor students in an in-person experience highly similar to his own.
“I would love to begin to take students abroad,” Shambley said. “The school that TOCA is partnered with in Spain is the school I studied abroad with. For the in-person program, our students would be taking three hours of Spanish a day, living with a homestay family and then doing culturally immersive activities in the afternoon like museum tours, flamenco dancing, cooking classes so that students would be fully immersed.”