Akwaaba!! Welcome! I had grown accustomed to hearing this greeting throughout my stay in the breathtaking country of Ghana, West Africa. After my first year as a College Student Personnel master’s student, this summer I trekked across the country with the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work and School of Education for a three and a half week study abroad experience with 12 other students representing four universities. In the months leading up to departure, I did not know what to expect. Plagued with ambiguous descriptions of Africa by co-workers, friends, and family, I found myself fielding comments such as “Isn’t that country at war?” or “What language do they speak over there?” and my favorite, “Watch out for the lions!” But, I did not embark on this trip on the notions of others. By studying abroad I was hoping to gain understanding of another country, its people and their practices.
The course in which I enrolled, Comparative Issues in Higher Education: Ghana, West Africa and the United States, provided several learning opportunities for me as a participant. The aim of this course was to allow students to gain insight into the educational system and culture of Ghana as related to student affairs. In doing so, we interacted and networked with Ghanaian students, faculty, and administrators at universities throughout Ghana, attended lectures and engaged in one-on-one conversations with student affairs professionals in which we discussed major issues in education, and conducted field observations at various sites.
One of the first universities that we visited, which proved to have the most significant impact on my professional development, was Ashesi University in Accra. Although Ashesi is only four years old, this small, private, liberal arts institution has a very impressive background and a promising future. During our first visit to Ashesi, we had the privilege of meeting with the president of the college, Mr. Patrick Gyimah Awuah. I was personally interested Mr. Awuah’s vision for the university and wanted to know about the mission and goals and how they coincided with the development of students and staff. Mr. Awuah, or Patrick as he did not mind being called, spoke of a leadership crisis that Ghana is facing. He explained leadership is “deemed fundamental in developing the society.” Ghana is experiencing a lack of leaders in economics, politics, and education. Therefore the goal for Ashesi University is simple: to develop an academically strong institution that will train a new generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders in Africa; to cultivate within students the values of life-long learning, concern for others and the courage to think in a bold and enterprising way. This goal, coupled with a liberal arts teaching philosophy is making new waves in the higher educational system in Ghana.
These thoughts seem to resonate throughout the institution. Students and teachers alike are in tune with this mission and work in harmony with it. In our discussion with Ashesi students, we found that student development is alive and well on the campus. We met with students members of the student council, judicial board, and the student government association. Our discussion led me to draw upon several theories and themes within student affairs.
Identity formation and development of autonomy is evident among the behavior of students. Student leaders seemed very enthusiastic about involvement in extra-curricular activities and creating a balance between these activities and academics. Students were also very eager to share and exchange ideas with us. They shared with us a great concern that they faced academically. The students expressed that academic dishonesty is one of the biggest problems that they are dealing with on their campus. We shared some of the policies and practices that we have in place in the U.S. regarding this issue such as written academic dishonesty policies on syllabi, utilizing publication manuals, and discussing plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty in class. Collectively, we brainstormed several different ideas that could be implemented to curb this problem.
During our second visit to Ashesi, another student and I met with several student affairs administrators for an intimate one-on-one roundtable discussion. In this meeting I led a short dialogue on an aspect of student development that I feel is important for all college students and staff to consider. The discussion centered on the various student development outcomes, benefits, and challenges of studying abroad. At the time of this meeting, we had been in the country for almost three weeks, so I was able to put in perspective my own views of development and correlate those thoughts with real occurrences from Ghana. Some of the premises that I shared with the group in regards to student gains and benefits from studying abroad include: learning to appreciate differences by immersing in a foreign culture, studying abroad helps with issues of adjustment by learning to function and live in a new environment, identity formation and a sense of self is enhanced especially in regards to racial/ethnic identity, becoming independent and leaning towards interdependence and one is able to develop individual views on the world by physically being in another place. Finally, one’s appreciation for diverse cultures is expanded because one is actually in the location of the host country!
Moving further into the country we traveled to the city of Kumasi were we stayed on the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) campus, on to Cape Coast and the University of Cape Coast and back in Accra to the University of Ghana-Legon. Through discussion with administrators and students at these universities, I was not surprised to detect that some of the same challenges we face on campuses in the U.S. were also visible on their campuses. Issues such as alcohol abuse, mental health issues, and lack of student involvement on campus were all matters that call attention to student affairs professionals worldwide.
I was especially impressed by the incredible allegiance that the Ghanaians have in regards to the well being of their country. Not wanting to fall susceptible to the “brain drain,” faculty members encourage students to obtain their degrees in Ghana and to launch their professional careers in the country as well. This cycle carries on the idea of producing more leaders in the country.
In the midst of these educational experiences, I witnessed a fantastic showcase of Ghana’s cultural and social landscape. While on a safari at Mole National Park I walked alongside elephants, monkeys, and warthogs. I met some vibrant children while painting a mural in Kumasi at the Kumasi Children’s Home. Browsing around in the W.E.B. Dubois Museum gave me a first hand look at some of this great scholar’s original manuscripts. A visit to the slave castles of Cape Coast proved to be one of the most emotional experiences I had while watching fishermen from the beach cascade out into the Atlantic Ocean allowed for a refreshing change of scenery. Taking a walk on the Kakum canopy walkway was one of the most terrifying, yet exciting, events of the trip. Imagine being suspended hundreds of feet in the air, your only option being to walk one foot in front of the other on a wobbly narrow wooden plank that is held up by netting on either side; that was the canopy walk! Mix all of this in with random shopping trips to astonishing markets, dining on delicious fresh fish, tasty rice, and flavorsome ice cream and this added up to one remarkable voyage!
In the world of student affairs, it is imperative that professionals step outside of their familiarities in anticipation of the rainbow of students that they will inevitably encounter and serve. Beyond enjoying the dynamics of another country, traveling abroad will inevitably aid in personal growth and development. Employers will see the ambition and determination expressed by these efforts which will be an asset to one’s career. I must mention the new friends one may meet while abroad, both international and from the United States. I keep in touch with the alumni of the trip, and I anticipate that the bond we created while thousands of miles from home will sustain a long-standing relationship. The impact and influence of a study abroad experience will greatly enhance any student’s personal, professional, and educational experience!
This picture was taken at Ashesi University. From left to right on bottom row: Dr. Jeanette Barker, UGA professor; Ashesi school psychologist & professor; Adzo Amegayibor, Dean of Student and Community Affairs at Ashesi; and the Ashesi school nurse. Top row from left to right: Su Bartlett, UGA study abroad participant; and Tamekka Cornelius, UofL study abroad participant.