By Andrew Hupp
If you would have told me a year ago that I would spend five months in West Africa for a portion of my school year, I would have laughed in your face and thought it was complete nonsense. Yet today, I find myself forever impacted and transformed from my abroad experience in Ghana.
Ghana is a West African state positioned to the right of Cote D’Ivoire, left of Togo, and squeezed between Burkina Faso and the Gulf of Guinea. It is home to some of the most diverse communities, both ecologically and culturally. From the tall urban towers in Accra, the nation’s capital, to the rolling hills in the northwest, there always seems to be a variety of terrain and lifestyles that accompany the country of Ghana.
The program comprised Sewanee students and Calvin College students, and was led by Sewanee’s own professor of politics, Dr. Amy Patterson, and Calvin College’s professor of social work, Dr. Joe Kuilema. The students of the program all came from quite diverse disciplines. Some students were studying international development or politics, while others were focused on nursing or speech pathology. This created an atmosphere of varying opinions and perspectives brought to everyday life, and the students gained a well-rounded view from the combination of concentrations within the group.
There was also a plethora of opportunities for any category of discipline or interest during the Ghana program. Any passions like fashion, music, or even theater could be abundantly pursued during the semester and one would most definitely have a unique experience studying their craft while in Ghana. Students also worked with local NGOs, non-governmental organizations, through internships that allowed students to explore their disciplines while gaining real world experience!
Although we did have a fair share of travelling and seeing the brilliant features that Ghana offered like Wli Falls, West Africa’s tallest waterfall, the most impactful moments were those centered around observing, learning, and understanding the new world that surrounded us. As a part of the semester, students spend most of the month of January exploring Ghana with their professors and classmates, specifically focusing on more academic topics like NGOs, operations, history, culture, current events, and more.
The Sewanee-Calvin students were tasked with the job of observing and digesting all of these topics as they were presented during January and for the continuation of their semester. One NGO we visited was Challenging Heights; an organization dedicated to ending human trafficking inside Ghana since 2003. While touring the Challenging Heights facilities, we were educated on the intricacies of human trafficking, specifically within the sector of child labor. Challenging Heights focuses on the forced child labor on Lake Volta, the largest man-made lake in the world.
While we were educated on all the facets of child labor, it occurred to me how profoundly little I knew about this global issue. This was the case for several interactions during the Ghana semester. However, it was through interactions like these that I became better educated and knowledgeable on some of the world’s largest problems. When speaking on hard-to-digest issues such as these, Dr. Patterson voiced that sometimes we need to “live in discomfort,” as those are the times that we truly have our eyes opened and we can begin to have “sympathy and understanding” for others.
Another moment that was quite impactful and haunting for the program’s students was visiting El Mina Castle. While this fortress held a variety of functions throughout history, it is most infamous for its history with the slave trade. Thousands upon thousands of slaves passed through the castle as victims of humanity’s worst atrocities. As students on the Ghana semester, we visited the castle and learned extensively of its history and the stories of those who passed through the stone-cold structure. This memorable trip served as a chilling reminder that we must never forget our past and should understand that while places like El Mina have not been used for decades, there are still reminders constantly around us.
I do not believe that many other abroad programs offer this kind of raw and authentic experience. Since the program does take place in the global south, it is much more different than stepping into a world similar to our own. This world is not entirely foreign, but stark differences do exist and rightly prompt one to think more and contemplate some of life’s harder questions.
When asked about the semester in Ghana, Erin Moore (C’18) said, “The Ghana program does have its ups and downs but the cultural, social, and academic perspectives we received were ones you never find at Sewanee.” Erin also spoke of the unique internships she had acquired during her time in Ghana and said that her knowledge and capacity to thrive as a student exponentially grew as a result.
Ghana was a life-changing experience for me and my colleagues. There were hard times and fun times. Each of these helped us to grow personally and academically in ways we never imagined. This was an opportunity I will be forever grateful for taking and it was an experience I will never overlook. I challenge all students to seek out new possibilities and step out of their comfort zone. If all Sewanee students pursue opportunities like the Ghana program, then I truly believe, we will forever be better global citizens.