Students gain class credits, work experience in Ghana

Emily Williams

Many students choose to get career experience while they are in college, but not many of them get the opportunity to do so in a foreign country.

Every summer, undergraduates have the chance to study, sightsee and job shadow in Africa as a part of the UA in Ghana faculty-led study abroad program.

Seth Appiah-Opoku, an associate professor in geography, leads between 10 and 45 students on a three-week tour of Ghana each July. The students take six credit hours on the geography and culture of Africa and travel around the country doing field visits. Some of the excursions include visiting a gold mine, a slave castle built in 1482, a monkey sanctuary and a canopy walk in the rainforest.

In addition, students spend a week in Sunyani, a sister city of Tuscaloosa, shadowing a job in their field of study. Appiah-Opoku talks with the students to figure out what they are interested in, and arranges a service-learning opportunity that matches students’ career goals.

Brittney Knox participated the trip as an undergraduate in 2011. Knox had the opportunity to work at a Ghanaian radio station and explore her interest in journalism.

“I was able to talk to the executives there and just learn a lot about their newsgathering techniques, working with the associated press, what did they do to get their news,” Knox said. “Then at the end of me going and visiting there, I was able to actually participate in a live broadcast. I was the person they were interviewing, and it was really exciting.”

Coy Morgan, who participated in the 2012 trip, said his work experience with the Geographic Information System planning department in Ghana helped him in his job search back home.

“I learned a lot,” said Morgan, who now works at the Southern Alabama Regional Planning Commission. “I got to do the stuff I was majoring in and got to soak in another culture. I had an interview the other day and they asked, and I told them I’ve seen what can happen if you don’t do planning the right way.”

Appiah-Opoku said most students are surprised to see how developed Ghana is compared to the vision of Africa they see on television. He said the experience provides students with a broader perspective of the world and of their own culture.

“I think that being an American, some of the students actually haven’t even traveled outside the US; when they go over there I can see that they learn a lot about themselves,” Appiah-Opoku said. “When they go to Africa they have something to compare with the opportunities that they have here in the U.S. Some of them also learned a lot about their profession compared to what’s done in Africa.”

The students become completely immersed in Ghanaian culture, learning traditional dances, picking up some of the language and sampling the local food.

“There are several cultural differences, like food for instance,” Appiah-Opoku said. “You get a fish that has the head on it. I had a student say he can’t eat the fish because the fish was staring at him. Again, that’s why we go there, so you see what’s different there. Life in Ghana is so brusquely unlike the hurried life in America.”

Morgan described the canopy walk in the rainforest as his most meaningful experience on the trip.

“I remember being on the canopy walk, being so high up and just looking out and seeing plants that I’d never seen and animals that I’d never seen,” Morgan said. “The weather, the smell, everything was different. I remember trying to soak that all in and being like, ‘I won’t ever see anything like this in my life again.’”

Knox said the most important part of spending her summer abroad was gaining a new perspective on the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world.

“I think everyone needs to realize that it’s a global world, and people are coming to America and more businesses are sending their employees overseas to be able to interact with people and actually be culturally aware,” Knox said. “I think being able to study abroad gives you that experience, and you realize there’s more outside of here or wherever you’re from.”

This year, the program will take place during the Summer II session. The application deadline is March 21.