A Different Kind of Student: U.S.

-Senegal exchange attracts unique students to a unique program
Masarah Van Eyck, Division of International Studies

Finally, I learned to say: ‘Okay, let’s just adopt the old phrase inshallah. What’s going to happen is going to happen. And if it does? Well, then c’est pas grave.” —Maren Larsen, UGB exchange student, 2007-08

When Maren Larsen landed in Dakar, she had a great many expectations. “I had always wanted to live in Africa. It was a whole dream of mine!” she says one night last January over bottles of Flag beer and Perrier in Saint-Louis, Senegal. She and nine other American students have met up with Jim Delehanty, UW–Madison faculty advisor of their exchange program, in the bar of the Hôtel la Résidence in the former capital of the historic French colony. This year, all participants on the program are females, which isn’t unusual, and all are enrolled at UW– Madison (most hail from hometowns around the state). Their majors range from agriculture to business to literature and peace studies. While undoubtedly western—even Midwestern—in appearance, the women exhibit evidence of having lived in a remarkably different country since September. Some wear a mix of Old Navy capris and Senegalese headscarves wrapped four inches above their heads. Another arrives in a personally tailored turquoise Senegalese dress and shoulder-skimming earrings.

Most wear locally made wooden-soled, leather sandals, their white toes and painted toenails crusted with the brown sand that covers everything. “And then I got here,” Larsen continues, “and for a long time it was just really hard—the cold showers, the holes instead of toilets. It wasn’t necessarily bad,” she hastens to add, “it was just a lot to take in.” The students nod in recognition. “Still, when I was down, I kept thinking: ‘this is my dream! Why aren’t I loving this?”

Delehanty annually travels the approximately15 hours it takes to provide midyear support to the 10 American students enrolled at the Université Gaston Berger (UGB). Offered through UW–Madison’s office of International Academic Programs (IAP), the year-long exchange has accepted almost 150 participants from a handful of American universities since 1991. This is Delehanty’s “twelfth-or-so” midterm visit, which means he has served as one of the program’s faculty advisors pretty much from the start.

Delehanty, who is also the associate director of UW–Madison’s African Studies Program, is here to advise the students on their the fieldwork research projects that each will transform into a 35 to 50 page paper within the next few months.

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It is also a chance to check in with the students, to see how each is faring in one of the nation’s most innovative, unique, and challenging opportunities for undergraduate academic study abroad.

Hitting the wall Some call it “hitting the wall.” Others, the “midterm slump.” “It’s almost like clockwork,” Delehanty had told me during our four-hour car ride from Dakar to Saint-Louis. “It’s sort of a fixture in the study-abroad experience.” And this is no less true in Saint-Louis. By now, some are over the novelty of being called

toubab (white person) in the busy markets. Most are craving hot showers and flush toilets.
Others have just said goodbye to boyfriends or siblings who visited for the holidays; now they are facing another semester before seeing them again. Many of the students will confide to us over that week that if they felt they could leave right then, they probably would. All of them say they wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.

Learning to judge from within “These students are not tourists,” Baydallaye Kane, professor of English and the on-site program coordinator at UGB, tells me. His office, on the second floor of the university’s main building, is bright with light from one whole window of walls. A framed black-and-white photo of Gaston Berger, Saint-Louis native and Afro-French philosopher, hangs on the wall by the door. “Although we now have a number of exchange programs, the UW program was the first, and is very unique” he says.

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Kane, one of the early architects of the UGB program—together with UW–Madison African Languages and Literature professor Edris Makward and then-associate director of IAP Joan Raducha—was determined to design opportunities for the greatest cultural immersion possible. “These students really experience our culture. That’s what I like so much about this program. It’s a cultural exchange at least as much as it is academic.” Accordingly, the program consists of three pillars: residential immersion in UGB courses and African student life, intense instruction in the Wolof language, and an innovative research project tailored to each student’s interest. And so after a month-long stay with a Senegalese host family in Dakar for early orientation and language instruction, each student lives in UGB housing with a Senegalese roommate. Like everyone else, they wash their clothes in plastic pails and take cold showers for the year. And they eat chebu gen (fish and rice) and other local fare at the outdoor blueterraced buvette as goats amble along the acacia-lined paths between buildings. Arguably, students might find downtown Saint-Louis, about a ten-minute taxi ride from the university, a more stimulating environment. There, market-lined streets and nightclubs offer color and more touristy opportunities. But that would distance them from ordinary student life at UGB. In this setting, their intensive Wolof instruction comes in handy. While all of the Americans on this program arrive with some facility in French, an official language of the

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country, they receive year-long language instruction in Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal. As Jo Ellen Fair, UW–Madison journalism professor and faculty co-director of the UGB program, explains: “After a while you don’t want the Senegalese students to switch into French every time you walk up to them. If there’s a Wolof conversation going on, you want to join it in Wolof.” The last of the program’s three-prong immersion mission is perhaps the most innovative: the fieldwork projects which require these students to research some aspect of Senegalese life, culture, or environment. To do so, students must navigate communities beyond the university, where French and Wolof are just two of many languages spoken. “Getting students out into the community is especially important in a country like Senegal,” Delehanty explains. “All universities are an abstract of society at large, but in Africa the university is especially distant from the day-to-day lives of most citizens.” (Never mind the rarity of higher education: approximately 50 percent of Senegalese men and 30 percent of women cannot read or write.) Students have tackled such subjects as the struggling fishing industry, conflict resolution in the Casamance region, and the role of Chinese merchants in Senegalese economy (see sidebar).

“This was particularly challenging to establish,” explains former IAP director and fellow program founder Joan Raducha. “The concept of undergraduate students doing fieldwork is not really part of the French system.” But it was Kane, who himself was trained in a traditional French system, who really pushed

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for the inside perspective that fieldwork projects would provide. “Baydallaye is one of the most creative administrators I’ve ever encountered,” Raducha says by way of explanation. (Indeed, as the newly elected dean of UGB’s College of Letters and Human Sciences, he is now implementing a major, and equally creative, restructuring of the university’s entire curricular structure.) “Exchange opportunities for American students are very important in terms of cultural tolerance,” Kane says of the value of cultural immersion. “Unlike their grandparents—who didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to experience other cultures—these students can see another culture from the inside.” “That’s important because then they can judge a culture from that place,” he continues. “It’s not okay to say ‘I don’t like this about a culture’ when you don’t understand it. But if you understand the culture and then don’t like something about it, that’s different.” But that is not to say it’s easy.

Scaling the wall What exactly is so uncomfortable about the year in Senegal? Certainly Saint-Louis is a modern city by West African standards. And the Université Gaston-Berger, founded in 1990, is regarded as the most advanced institution of higher learning in the country. When we visit in the middle of winter, the weather is 80 degrees and sunny every day— it being the cool and dry season of the year. And the Senegalese we meet do justice to their reputation as open and warm people. (In fact, each student recounts with equal parts pride and humility the week spent celebrating the Muslim holiday Tabaski with the families of their Senegalese friends.)

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“We’re definitely not sending them into the bush,” says Delehanty, who knows something about that. He spent several years in Niger, another former French colony, while serving in the Peace Corps and, later, researching settlement of marginal lands for his doctorate in geography. Still, most of the students have never navigated in a Muslim culture, where a religion unfamiliar to most of them permeates social mores and requires different comportment: a more modest dress for women, for example. And seemingly small things can loom large over time, for example, only extending one’s right hand in social situations, not the left. Combine that with a more relaxed sense of time, an intensely social culture, and diverging sanitary routines, and there’s a point they have to abandon many of their own ingrained patterns and expectations. Each student has to find his or her own way of handling such disorientation. Some solutions are practical. One student learned to manage the power outages that interrupt routine errands by taking a book wherever she goes to just wait it out. All of them recognize that just the act of seeing oneself through such challenges, which sometimes require just sitting through discomfort, has helped them to foster a different attitude entirely—one that they will draw on long beyond the program year. “I think the wall that I hit was built by my expectations,” says Larsen. “I had to learn not to get worked up over things. Now no matter what happens, I feel like things will work out.”

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“I learned to have faith,” says Catherine Skroch, who has just returned from conducting peace studies and conflict resolution in the Casamance. “Finally, I just said: ‘I’m going to close my eyes and hold my breath and jump into it, and hope it all turns out alright.” Political Science major Brenda Lazarus assesses her experience with pride: “I’m more independent now,” she says. “I’m more confident that whatever situation I’m in I can deal with it.”

A different kind of student “It’s a different kind of student who chooses to go to Senegal,” program coordinator Andrea Muilenburg had told me before I left for my trip with Delehanty. They are more

independent, she had said, because they have to conduct a fieldwork project without the oversight of an on-site advisor. They are also more disciplined and mature. “It’s not a regular academic environment,” Muilenburg explained. “They don’t have the luxuries that students would have in other countries.” Raducha says one of the biggest challenges has been designing productive academic years when whole courses can be canceled or postponed for weeks at a time. For the most part, it’s the students who show remarkable discipline and drive. Indeed, the alumni of the UGB program have proven to form an uncommonly successful lot. Along with a disproportionately high number of future Peace Corps volunteers, a striking number have gone on to practice medicine or enter NGOs.

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Sarah Nehrling, who participated in the program during the 2003-04 academic year, recently returned to work for a Senegalese NGO in Theis, an important city between Dakar and Saint-Louis. When we visit her in a café on our way back to Dakar, she updates Jim on the status of her fellow UGB alumni. Three are in the Peace Corps and another is earning her master’s in public health from UW–Madison. Nehrling herself is now working for her third NGO in West Africa since graduating back at UW–Madison in 2005. She plans to stay at least a year and a half. With hindsight, Nehrling acknowledges that, while such a unique opportunity draws exceptional individuals, something in the experience itself solidifies their compassion and resolve. “There’s a big difference between [the students on UW–Madison’s exchange program] and the other foreign students attending UGB with less preparation and immersion,” Nehrling tells us. American students on other programs, for example, only stay for one semester and most often live in separate housing. “Some of those students say, ‘I didn’t learn a thing about Senegal when I was there, I admit it.’” “They don’t experience the same level of stress and discomfort,” she explains. “There is a cracking point in study abroad when you’re just frustrated with so many things. And you either learn how to deal with it, or you completely give up in the negative sense. You just tune out.” “So is it just a level of discomfort that makes UW students more successful here?” Delehanty asks. No, not that, she corrects. It’s the sense of self that results from having to adapt to such intense cultural immersion.

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SIDEBAR A: A culture in a culture in a culture… When we meet her at the campus’ blue-terraced, open-air buvette, Maren Larsen tells us she has chosen to research the place of Chinese merchants in the Senegalese economy. This, as it turns out, has led her to speak with everyone from a cultural attaché of Senegal’s Economic Mission to street merchants in Dakar’s Chinatown. She has also enrolled in Chinese language courses, which UGB is offering for the first time this year. But because her Chinese is rudimentary at best and most of the Asian shop owners speak neither French nor Wolof, Larsen found herself approaching the Senegalese merchants who hawk goods outside the Chinese owners’ stores. They would be effective intermediaries, she thought. “I learned to bargain with them,” Larsen says. “I said: ‘I’ll give you an English lesson if you let me interview you about your work.’” “Unfortunately, the English lesson takes twice as long as the interview!” she laughs. Still, she says she’s gained an invaluable perspective on the informal economy between the Chinese and Senegalese merchants, the latter of whom often purchase their goods from the stores directly behind them. “I’m doing real research,” she says, “and not just from an American perspective. The Senegalese are asking the same questions I’m asking [‘Why did these Chinese merchants suddenly appear and what are they doing here?’], so I don’t feel like I’m just examining their culture as an outsider.” “I feel like a real UGB student.”

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SIDEBAR B: A different kind of program

“It didn’t take long for us to ask what the people at UGB needed in exchange,” Raducha says. Both institutions were committed to building a program that truly benefited each partner—even when this meant accommodating very different needs. This commitment has required the program’s administrators to be almost as flexible as the students it sends abroad. “Joan was genuinely invested in giving UGB a fair half of the exchange,” Kane says. “Even if that meant finding positively unique solutions.” By the second year of the exchange, UW–Madison was welcoming top applicants from UGB to spend a year studying in Wisconsin. In some years, one Senegalese student came to Wisconsin, and in others years there were two or three. Because of economic disparities, attending UW–Madison is out of the reach of most Senegalese students, so fees from the American participants contributed to the costs of bringing Senegalese counterparts to Wisconsin. (Generally, one UGB student could come to Wisconsin for every four UW–Madison students sent to Senegal.) Within just a few years, it was clear that this was an untenable arrangement: fewer than one out of ten students from Saint-Louis who visited Madison returned to Senegal. Instead, most parlayed their Madison experience into admission to a U.S. graduate school. Educational advancement of this kind certainly was good for the participating Senegalese students and admirable in every regard, but program organizers on both sides were concerned that extended or permanent stays in the U.S. would limit the exchange’s direct benefits to UGB and Senegal.

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“They just sort of wove into the social fabric here,” Raducha explains. Indeed, several have obtained Ph.D.s and assumed faculty posts in American universities. As of yet, none has returned to teach at UGB. A plan B was needed. “We really listened to the university’s administrators as they were figuring out what they needed in exchange,” Raducha remembers. “Unlike UGB, which is still growing, UW–Madison is completely settled,” says Kane, making it a perfect place for a scholar in need of a library and fellow colleagues. “We realized we didn’t need to strengthen the experiences of our students as much as we needed to offer professional development opportunities to our top faculty. This, we figured, would lead them to return to UGB—and in turn we’d attract further top students from West Africa to our university.” Now three Saint-Louis faculty and administrators spend three to five months every year conducting research at UW–Madison. “I feel very good about what we did with Senegal,” Raducha says. “A partnership means both sides benefit. And if that means changing our rules, well, you have to do what’s useful to both sides.” On UGB’s campus, the fact that UW–Madison students are paying for other people’s education and professional opportunities is not lost on program participants. “At first we thought it was weird that there was this arrangement,” says one Wisconsin student who joined us on our bumpy car ride back to Dakar. “But it sort of makes sense. Like, why shouldn’t my tuition help pay for their growth? Why wouldn’t it?” Says another student, “Personally, I’m glad that they can do this, now that I’ve seen the resources here, I have to stop myself from saying ‘our libraries are the size of city blocks!’ I realized how much we [UW–Madison] have to offer.”

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In fact, the arrangement has nothing to do with charity, and the costs to Wisconsin participants are nil. UGB waives most tuition, room, and board costs for Wisconsin participants precisely so that the fees that the American students pay can be reserved for UGB faculty and staff research trips to UW–Madison. It’s a new era in international education. No longer need large research universities merely consume the educational and cultural experiences of other countries. Exchanges like UW–Madison’s Senegal program value the fact that each institution has something different to offer and gain from the arrangement. Both stand to grow because of it.

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