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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 Saint-Louis, 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.

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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 mid-year

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.”

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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 blue-terraced 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. [find pic of dorm room here]

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

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

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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 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

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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.

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“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.”

“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.

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“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.

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

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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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