Four School of Education students went to Ghana over winter break, and came back with insights they hope to share in their future careers.
The four brought diverse personal and educational backgrounds to the course on Ghana’s history and culture offered by UWM’s Africology Department:
Shaquita Glenn is from Milwaukee, an African American master’s degree student in educational psychology; Ian Hoeffler is a Caucasian graduate student in higher education administration from Whitefish Bay; Soua Lor is an undergraduate in early childhood education who was born in Thailand and raised in Milwaukee; Katrina McGann is a multiracial graduate student in higher education administration and originally from North Carolina.
The way the trip bonded them is apparent in their back-and-forth chatter during an interview, and their habit of finishing each other’s sentences and interjecting comments as they all talk about their experiences.
McGann and Hoeffler both say they’re hoping to work with university study abroad programs and international students when they finish their degrees.
“There are a whole lot of differences culturally that are important to recognize for students and to make sure they’re supported when coming here to the U.S.,” says McGann. “I wanted to learn about some of the things that aren’t necessarily taught in schools here,” she added.
“I was the only male on our trip besides the professor and I was the only white person,” says Hoeffler. “I obviously can’t fully understand oppression in the way a person of color understands it, but I did get the perspective of being in the minority.”
For Glenn, learning more about Ghana’s culture and people will help her better understand African American students she works with as a counselor, she says.
“As a psych major, I’m really interested in identity formation, to understand how people come to terms with the way they see themselves and the way they actually move in the world.” Seeing how the people of Ghana revered their heroes and celebrated their history will help her counteract stereotypes of Africans.
“They feel good about who they are and where they come from; who was there before them. That’s powerful. That’s one thing kids here are lacking. We don’t have positive representation of what it means to be an African American. We just don’t.”
Lor echoed that thought.
“I just feel like Africa has a lot to do with the history of the United States. As an educator myself, I need to be educated in what I teach my students.”
The country itself provided numerous surprises and learning opportunities.
The students were amazed at the skyscrapers, malls and thriving cities that didn’t fit their stereotype of people living in thatched huts (though there were some of those in less urban areas). They also enjoyed the warm and welcoming people they met.
The most deeply moving experiences were their visits to the Elmina and Cape Coast slave castles, where captured slaves were held before being transported overseas, often to America.
“I think the biggest thing for me was to actually feel the heaviness of the place,” says Glenn. “It was really intense. You could tell that a lot of ugliness happened there.”
The tiny cells where slaves were held still held the stench of death, illness and hundreds of people trapped in small spaces.
McGann asked one of the tour guides how he coped emotionally with telling the story of those terrible times over and over again each day.
He said some days he’ll cry with the tourists he’s taking through, but he realizes that this is a story that has to be told and that’s what his purpose is.
The SOE students said the visit opened their eyes to all they hadn’t learned in school. “I was thinking back to my elementary and middle school education and discussions of slavery,” says Hoeffler. “It never focused on the African side. I knew there was more to it, but actually going there and experiencing it was like ‘wow.’ We aren’t being taught the full truth.”
Their visit had many happy moments, too. The students all laughed about being pulled – sometimes reluctantly — into an African dance. Or visiting elementary schools and “production villages” where crafts are made. And they brought back tangible memories in the form of scarves, called adinkras, featuring stamped personalized symbols.
They were able to choose from 150 traditional symbols the ones that were personal to them.
“We made one as a group,” says Glenn, “And we made individual ones. We’re going to wear them at graduation.”
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