Final Reflections from the GSUganda2017 Study Abroad Director
By Prof. Monica Swahn
At Twekembe Slum Project we have four main activities; we support education, sanitation, social entrepreneurship and fundraising. In terms of education, we have several initiatives. We support the Parent’s Academy, a local community school serving nearly 400 poor children in the slums, most of which are orphans, who cannot afford school fees. We also support a small community preparatory school for the very youngest and those who have not yet learned the basic skills to attend the Parent’s Academy. Additionally, we provide education and outreach programs for those most vulnerable, such as empowering single mothers with HIV/AIDS and organizing sports tournaments for children and youth. Our Georgia State students visited both schools and saw how a school served by volunteers can function in the most limited of circumstances. Their reactions were profound and several wrote about these visits in their own blogs. In particular, they were surprised to see how very excited the children were to receive new books we had brought with us through our donation drive in the US.
This course covers the basic research on alcohol and harm through lectures, site visits and field trips to organizations that seek to prevent or treat alcohol problems in their community and country. The course provides an up-close view of vulnerable communities and their residents, particularly the youth. We even facilitate meetings where our students can have a dialogue with high-risk youth, some of which even produce their own alcohol for sale. But, that is the easy part of the program.
The tougher part of the program is to ensure that all students have a great experience, that they learn and grow and that they have access to me as their professor in a way that they never would in a regular class on the Georgia State University campus. Any student signing up for a study abroad program takes a leap of faith, they trust their professor to keep them safe and to organize a great and enriching experience for them.
To me, serving as the study abroad director is a privilege and opportunity to share my insight and expertise as a researcher and frequent visitor to Uganda (a country that I love), but also to be part of my students lives while they embark on this journey. It’s a unique opportunity to provide mentoring and support to students, especially those who may not otherwise get a chance to travel or who may not get that type of access to a professor in a regular class.
This was my second year taking a class of students on the study abroad program to Uganda. As I have traveled to Uganda regularly for the last 7 years for various projects, an NIH funded study, and as a Fulbright Scholar, I’m very familiar with the country, its culture and practice. So for me, what I look forward to when taking the US students to Uganda, are their reactions to this new environment, how they navigate the new smells, tastes, sounds and sights. How they react and process the new experiences, the absolute poverty, the enormous disparities and contrasts, the breathtaking beauty, the friendly people, the traffic chaos and the magical rhythms and music everywhere. Uganda is a country of contrasts. There are many unique and unexpected aspects to the country and some things that can really only be experienced there.
Uganda is also one of the most beautiful countries in the world and its breathtaking beauty can be found across the cities and rural areas. While we spend most of our time for the study abroad program in Kampala, the capital, we also take the students to a range of cultural sites and also to see the exciting wildlife on a safari. The class of 2017 visited the amazing Murchison Falls National Game Park and the adventurous town of Jinja to explore wildlife and the River Nile.
Every time I bring students, they remind me to look at this amazing country with new eyes. I always learn from my students, their many questions and reactions. This helps me deepen my understanding of Uganda but also guides my ongoing research and that of my collaborators. I treasure the opportunity to reflect, and to learn and treat it as a true privilege to be part of the lives of my students and their academic and personal journeys into the future. A study abroad program like this, changes you in unexpected ways. As one very experienced traveler has stated:
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But, that’s ok. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind” by Anthony Bourdain.
That sums up the GSUganda2017 study abroad program. While I keep reflecting what I learned this year and hoping that my amazing students keep doing the same, I encourage you to read the other blogs from our trip to get the perspectives of the students and our course coordinator. I know for sure that we left something good behind while visiting Uganda, and we will again next year. And, as soon as summer is over, I will begin to recruit students for our GSUganda2018 adventure -I can’t wait!