To learn about another culture, you can watch the documentaries, read the books, study the maps and artifacts, listen to the experts—but nothing can come close to the experience of actually being there.
Nothing can match taking an early morning jog near your hotel and crossing paths with two giraffes or visiting Oldupai gorge, the site where Lucy, the earliest human hominid fossil, was excavated, or listening to a researcher explain work being done to sustain coral reefs while you’re looking at those reefs firsthand.
Two dozen Lafayette students had those once-in-a-lifetime experiences as part of an interim study abroad course to sub-Saharan Africa led by Rexford Ahene, professor of economics and chair of Africana studies, and Kofi Opoku, visiting professor of religious studies.
“It was truly spectacular. We did and saw everything I imagined we would and I really do feel that I have gained an entirely new perspective on my life back home after seeing how people in Africa go about everyday life,” says Kevin McCarville ’12, (Millburn, N.J.), a computer science major. “Our professors did an excellent job of teaching us while still letting us explore on our own.”
During their time in Africa, students learned about policies and strategies for managing economic development and Africa’s natural resources sustainably.
“I cannot speak highly enough about my experience in Kenya and Tanzania,” says Brad Bormann ’14 (Flemington, N.J.), a biology major. “It was an intensely engaging experience that I will reference in my mind and worldview for the rest of my life. Of course, to be traveling with a slew of intellectual students and professors served to elevate the content of the trip greatly, as I would often find myself discussing the big questions I had contemplated during the day over dinner.”
It was Bormann who encountered the giraffes: “As I was jogging, two giraffes crossed the road in front of me, and I stopped to watch them. One continued on, but the second giraffe stopped and turned to look at me. I met its eyes, and we stared at each other for a minute or two. His head was framed directly in the center of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the sun was just cresting over the eastern horizon.”
As Lafayette increasingly emphasizes the importance of globalization and multicultural awareness, students are taking advantage of opportunities to leave campus and learn about other places firsthand. Travelling to carefully selected locations in Kenya and Tanzania to learn from local experts, research scholars and policy makers, the course provided opportunities for students to witness, study and discuss emerging challenges in natural resources management and community wildlife conservation such as increasing human population, land use changes and abuse of land use rights, inconsistencies in policy and administrative practices, shrinking wildlife habitats, inadequate incentives for community participation, and lack of effective involvement in management decision making, all of which suggests a need for stronger and more sustainable conservation strategy.
“These study abroad opportunities provide different learning laboratories for students to learn in ways other than what can occur in the classroom,” says Ahene, who has been leading study abroad classes in Africa for more than two decades, focusing on different countries and different aspects of African culture, economic development, politics, and environmental issues with each trip.
The experiential learning allowed students to put information into context. For example, at a wildlife orphanage, students learned about issues of poaching, human-animal interactions, and the various issues that affect the ability of government and wildlife organizations to manage wildlife issues.
Andrew Moore ’12 (Austin, Texas), a government and law major, says the trip gave him new insights about the growing economies and influence of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.
“I have always wanted to go to Africa and see the wildlife and countryside and after taking this trip I definitely want to go back,” Moore adds.
In one memorable and eye-opening experience, the Lafayette group attended a lecture at the University of Nairobi, which enrolls over 50,000 students in the capital city of Kenya. The condition of the facilities came as a shock: crumbling concrete masonry, poorly lit stairwells, broken windows, and no computers or textbooks in sight.
“I remember thinking, ‘how can education possibly occur in these conditions?’” Bormann says. “What I came to realize, through several discussions with professors and people I met in Kenya, is that education is, first and foremost, an interpersonal endeavor. It depends on two people, sharing experiences and ideas for mutual benefit. Nothing else matters. Class can be held outside in the dirt, and as long as these essential conditions are being met, education will ensue with flying colors.”