Accompanied by Dr. Mary Willis, head of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Gerontology, eight Missouri State students participated in the university’s Education Abroad program by traveling to Zambia, Africa, May 31-June 26, 2023.
The participating students were Ahmed Amjed, Sarah Elliott, Reese Lawler, Dominique Lowe, McKennzee Newton, Jacob Rosencrans, Fernando Rodriguez and Sarah Tuck.
To be accepted for the Zambia trip, the students were interviewed by Willis, where they discussed the program and its research requirements.
Amjed, Elliott, Lowe, Newton and Lopez received Gilman Scholarships to fund their trip, which is expensive but “filled with personal and professional benefits to students,” Willis said. All eight students received some type of funding.
Education major Sarah Elliott encouraged students to explore funding options when considering an Education Abroad experience.
“I wouldn’t have been able to go on this trip without my scholarships,” Elliott explained.
The perfect place to learn
Even though only three percent of all college students in the United States visit Africa as part of an education abroad program, Willis described Zambia as an excellent educational destination. “It’s the perfect place for students to learn across a variety of disciplines,” she said.
Anthropology major McKennzee Newton said the Zambia trip offered numerous academic and professional benefits, such as gaining field research experience, learning new languages and examining regional dietary factors and their impact on health and nutrition.
“It seemed to be the perfect field school to start me in the right direction towards my future career,” Newton explained.
Pre-med student Fernando Rodriguez saw similar career benefits. He became especially interested when he learned that, as part of his experience, he would visit hospitals and medical clinics to learn more about Zambia’s healthcare system.
“Learning about healthcare in Zambia would be beneficial for me in terms of allowing me to see how countries are able to treat their patients with the resources they have available,” Rodriguez said.
Sociology major Dominique Lowe appreciated the individualized, interdisciplinary research component of the program.
“I anticipated that I would get wonderful field experience and cultural immersion,” Lowe said. “Being able to participate in a program where I could combine my interests in public health and the arts was key!”
Anthropology major Jacob Rosencrans was eager to travel to Zambia because he wanted to work with Willis, whose research in Zambia began in 2017. He also sought reassurance that he had picked the right career path. “Graduating with a bachelor’s in an -ology can be scary if you don’t have direction,” he said.
Rosencrans also wanted to bolster his credentials for the Peace Corps Prep certificate. “It was always a dream of mine to serve in the Peace Corps, but you never know how you’ll react until you’re in a foreign country, dazed, confused and struggling with the language.”
“After our trip to Zambia, I felt sure that I could survive two years with the Peace Corps and then move forward toward a graduate degree,” he added.
Learning by doing
The Education Abroad program gives students the chance to learn, gain practical experience and determine whether their education and career goals align.
Thus, much of the students’ activities in Zambia involved learning by doing.
“We took inventory at markets, learned the local languages, used Zambian currency and ate at some amazing places,” Newton said.
As part of their learning experience, the students worked primarily from the towns of Chipata and Livingstone, collecting anthropometric data, conducting home and farm visits and observing hospitals and clinics. They interviewed over 900 children, assisting them with basic dental care. As a service-learning project, the students gave children toothbrushes and toothpaste and accompanied them to clinics for dental work.
“Being able to learn from the medical students and the physicians about the system in Zambia was a great experience,” Rodriguez said. “I was able to see how difficult it is to help the patients with the small amount of staff and short amount of resources. Observing how they treat the patients with so much care and empathy was great to see.”
Home and farm visits a favorite
Another part of the learning experience were the home and farm visits, a favorite activity of Newton’s.
“Pairs of us would be taken to a home, help with [the] family’s chores, cook a traditional lunch, play with the family’s kids and eat with our host family,” Newton said.
Elliot likewise found the home visits educational, enjoying the chance to engage in conversation with their hosts. “The families were kind enough to welcome us into their homes and show us how they do their daily household maintenance and how they cook for their families,” Elliot said.
Rosencrans appreciated the opportunity to shadow various farms, which complemented his research interests in agriculture and food security. Gardening was one shared concern.
“Imagine seeing elephants on the side of the road. It was a daily occurrence in Livingstone,” Rosencrans said. “The people in the village even told me they had an ‘elephant problem’ with their garden. We use chicken-wire to keep deer out of our tomatoes; how do you keep elephants out?”
Activities a blend of work and cultural exploration
“When we were not collecting data, we engaged in market visits, home visits, explored chitenge [traditional African skirts] shops and cafes, trekked the beautiful Victoria Falls – I even went bungee jumping – and went on a safari in Botswana,” Lowe said.
“As a group, I think we all felt fulfilled by the work in Zambia,” Rosencrans said. “We woke up in the morning with a job to do and we went to bed every evening after dinner feeling a sense of accomplishment.”
International perspective highlights the human experience
The students expressed how important gaining an international perspective was to their futures and saw the trip to Zambia as an ideal opportunity.
“An international perspective of some kind is absolutely necessary in the shrinking world we live in,” Rosencrans said. “There is truly no better way to gain this perspective than leaving the city, state, or country you call home.”
Newton said learning about “an entirely different way of life” was the most important educational experience she gained from her time in Zambia.
She was especially struck by the kindness and hospitality extended to her and the other students. “My friends and I were immediately welcomed with open arms, and reassured constantly that we had a place in Zambia,” she said.
Making lifelong connections
Elliott was excited to learn from new experiences and to build lifelong relationships. “Going into this trip, I wanted to grow as an individual, gain new perspectives and outlooks on life, teach lessons to students in Zambia, learn more about the Zambian culture and build relationships with others,” she explained.
“It is amazing how you can build a friendship with someone who lives on the other side of the world and who lives a very different life than you,” she added. “We taught each other about different things and shared our cultures with each other. It’s important to share and celebrate our differences so that we can learn from one another.”
Rosencrans enjoyed drawing comparisons between Zambia and the United States, especially the Midwest. “It was more fun to draw comparisons for me – that’s sort of what we do in anthropology,” he said. “For example, when you make eye contact with a stranger in Zambia, they’ll probably say hello and ask how you are. The Midwest hospitality extends far beyond the borders of America, it seems!”
Lessons in gratitude
The students journaled each day about their experiences and impressions.
“I found myself contrasting how we appreciate life here in the US, versus in Zambia,” Lowe observed. “In America, we have a culture that is intense and highly demanding. We are constantly on the go, and at least for me, I can forget to appreciate what is around me.”
“In Zambia, there is a warm, joyful, and light-hearted spirit that I greatly appreciated being welcomed into,” she added.
Lowe also credited Willis for promoting the Zambia Education Abroad program. “I’m so thankful that this program was brought to Missouri State by Dr. Willis,” Lowe said. “When most students study abroad, they don’t consider going to an African country, and I hope that this program will spark curiosity in students to consider the value that Zambia has to offer.”
“All the work and complexity and struggle to get this program launched every year is worth it when I hear the students echo what I had hoped they would learn and care about,” Willis said. “In all the teaching that I have ever done, this is the most rewarding, and will always be the highlight of my academic life.”
Elliott also drew comparisons between Zambian and American education opportunities. “Not every child in Zambia is able to go to school, so the ones that are there are so excited to learn.”
“Not everyone is fortunate enough to get an education, so as college students we are very fortunate to continue our education, and it is something to be grateful for,” Elliott added.
Rodriguez will remember the children’s smiles. “A part of me saw how little they have at home and at school compared to what we are used to in the United States,” he said. “Yet they all had huge smiles on their faces and seemed to enjoy our visits thoroughly. It showed me that sometimes we can take things for granted back in the United States.”
“I learned so much during my time in Zambia and I’ll never forget the lessons I learned,” he added.
Newton also expressed how much she had learned from her time in Zambia. The experience “produced a side of myself I didn’t know prior to the trip,” she said. “I learned more about life and myself in the month that I was gone than I ever have before.”
Rosencrans perhaps best summed up the lessons of Zambia.
“Our similarities are oftentimes shrouded by our differences, but it’s important to remember that we’re all just humans that want to live and be happy.”
Photo credits: Mary S. Willis unless otherwise indicated.