Breaking cultural and linguistic barriers: Why I chose to study abroad in Africa

Blank stares and confused expressions are reactions I have grown accustomed to any time I respond to the question, “Where are you studying abroad this summer?”

These gawks usually accompany the question, “Senegal? Where is that – South America?” On the inside, my eyes roll deeply into the back of my head.

My agitation aside, these responses also serve to further assure me that I have made the right decision in selecting a study abroad location in Senegal, a beautiful country located on the coast of Western Africa.<

I chose to study abroad in Dakar, Senegal not only to educate myself about Senegalese culture, but also with the hopes of returning to the United States and informing others about a country and a continent that still remain seemingly unfamiliar.

According to the Institute of International Education’s 2014 Open Doors Report, only 5% of students from the U.S. chose Africa as their study abroad destination from 2012 to 2013.

Despite the low number of study abroad students in Africa each year, the importance of learning about developing countries within this continent, such as Senegal, is proving to be increasingly necessary as the world becomes more and more globalized and connected.

While Africa is an enormous continent that could easily fit the U.S., China, India, and a chunk of European countries within its borders, the options for study abroad programs in Africa are quite limited. Most of these programs are in South Africa, Ghana, Morocco, Botswana and Senegal.

During the process of selecting a program, it was easiest for me to first examine the courses that would be offered during my chosen term, as well as the language of instruction for each of these classes.

Because I am an African studies and journalism major, with a minor in French and anthropology, Senegal was automatically a perfect fit, as it is a Francophone-speaking country.

When further inspecting the programs in Senegal, I also found it essential to investigate the following factors: safety, educational opportunities, religion, environment, program availability and desired learning experiences.

My chosen study abroad program will take place in the city of Dakar, which is not only the largest city in Senegal, but also the nation’s capital. Senegal itself is well known for its important role in the exportation of slaves during the Atlantic Slave trade, and is currently recognized for its position as one of Africa’s most secure democracies and relatively stable economies.

Considering its captivating and vast history, outright gorgeous location, and French as its official language, Senegal proved to be nothing short of perfect for my academic and professional interests.

Studying abroad offers unlimited benefits, including enrichment within your field of study, linguistic skills, cultural awareness and knowledge of various ethnic groups and religions. For me, Senegal fit that bill with its predominately Muslim population and various ethnic groups, including the Wolof and the Fula.

The guaranteed real-life experience and knowledge I would gain about a culture and religion completely different than my own solidified my verdict.

As students we encounter false notions and stereotypes about other continents all the time, and Africa is no exception. One of the main reasons I encourage students to consider studying abroad in Africa is to break these barriers and this continued ignorance, while expanding our overall understanding of the world that exists outside of the U.S.

Stepping outside your comfort zone into what may seem like an entirely altered world indeed may be frightening and nerve-wracking, but what better way to study abroad and experience just a portion of our amazing world?

Mckenzie Powell is a student at Ohio University and a summer 2015 USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent.
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