I want to go to Ghana! Those simple words were more wishful thinking than an actual hope or dream. I could not even imagine how I would pay for such a trip. Long gone were the days of using my extra student loan money to take fun vacations. Besides, people like me did not take professional development trips to far away places. I attended national conferences, but that was the extent of my jet-setting. I knew attending the ACPA Cultural Study Tour to Ghana was beyond my reach. I would have to continue dreaming of Africa and hope that in 30 years my retirement nest egg would make my dreams come true. I never thought my university would fund the trip. I asked half jokingly, but with my fingers tightly crossed. Even after my return I was shocked and amazed, but most of all incredibly grateful, that I was given such an amazing opportunity.
On June 5, 2006 our journey began. I joined 12 other university professionals at Dulles International Airport and set out on what has become the most incredible journey of my life. I was excited about the diverse background of the group. There were master’s and doctoral students, faculty, and senior level student affairs administrators from varying racial and ethnic backgrounds. Once we arrived in Ghana we hit the ground running. Our days were packed with lectures and visits to cultural and historical sites. We learned about Ghanaian cultural, took dance lessons from the students at The University of Ghana, and we laughed. Not surprisingly, we shopped, a lot. Some of us single-handedly boosted the Ghanaian economy! There were days when I thought I would explode if I learned one more thing, bartered for one more gift, or ate one more plantain. At the end of those days the only thing I could say was, “But we’re in Africa.” It became my mantra for two weeks, but there were times when I was emotionally and physically overwhelmed.
I am sure everyone on the trip had their own thoughts about what was personally most meaningful to them. One cannot walk away from cultural immersion without having a favorite experience. I am sure for some it was learning about the history, for others it may have been visiting a game reserve and getting up close and personal with elephants, and for some others it was most likely interacting with the people. For me it was the visits to sites along the slave route. When we went to those places and stood in the very spot our ancestors stood, I could not control my emotions. I cried not only because of man’s inhumanity to man, but because I knew something had been taken from me. I, and others like me, had been stripped of our ability to connect with our history. The ACPA Cultural Study Tour to Ghana presented me with the ability to reconnect, and for that I am grateful.
People often say things are “life changing.” I never fully understood the true meaning of those words until I returned from Ghana. The ACPA Cultural Study Tour to Ghana was truly a life changing event for me. At first I thought I was sick from the travel. I tried to get back into my normal routine. I uploaded pictures, handed out presents, and said all the right things. “Yes, I had a wonderful time. Yes, the jetlag is horrible. Yes, that’s me sitting on a crocodile.” Getting back into my routine, however, was much more difficult than I imagined. I slept a restless sleep. When I was alone I looked at the pictures and cried. I stopped talking about my trip. I would not watch any television program that involved skinny models or housewives. No matter their desperation I was not interested in the stories they wanted to tell. I wanted things to be simple again. My life had changed, and I was angry.
Before I left for Ghana I started a travel blog as a way to share my experiences with friends. They are wonderful and love and support me in a way I never thought possible; I could not imagine the journey without them. At first the blogs were a way to share information, but by the time I wrote the second one it was becoming a way to help balance the anger with a desire to create change. In my second blog I wrote:
I’ve been pretty yuck about being back in the real world. It started last week. I thought it was coming back home, being sick…I’ve had a fever for several days (I finally started taking an antibiotic for the friends living in my stomach), and just the letdown of regular life. But it’s more than that. I’m restless. I want everyone to go where I’ve been, and see what I’ve seen. There is a quote by Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I want to use less and do more, and stop complaining if I’m not going to do something about it.
That was the beginning of my full-circle moment. I am moving towards the place I have always hoped I would be. I have always believed in the importance of social justice and social change based on personal responsibility. As members of society I believe it is our responsibility to care for one another. Believing something and feeling something, however, are two different things. At this moment, when I am more angry and annoyed than I have ever been, I am able to feel the sheer power that individual responsibly can have on effecting positive change. In a time of war and shrinking ethics, that’s what gives me hope. It is what pushes me forward. It is also the hope that I have for the students with whom I work. I hope that they go, and do, and see for themselves. I hope they come back after having a “life changing” experience with a desire to make a difference; whether they have been halfway around the world, down to the local food bank, or across the hall to talk with their “different” neighbor.
We have an amazing opportunity to help students see their place in the world. Of course we know this, or we would not do what we do every day for incredibly long hours. I am guilty of getting wrapped up in the administrative tasks. I sometimes forget that students are just trying to find their way and have their voices heard. I am sure I have missed countless opportunities to help students get one step closer to their full-circle moment. Thankfully I know I will be presented with those same opportunities time and again. In the future I will encourage students to stop vegetating in their one corner. More importantly, when they come back, whether they are angry and annoyed or happy and enthusiastic, I will challenge them to make positive changes in the world around them. To do anything less would be a waste of my “life changing” experience, and to expect anything less from students would be a waste of their time and talent.