The next installment in our series on internships will feature recent Bethel History graduate Jon Steen (’12), sharing the benefit of his experience as a summer intern with a local historical society. But as a Steen appetizer to hold you over until that post goes up… We also asked Jon about the semester he spent studying in West Africa. Jon’s answer was so interesting and detailed that we thought we’d break it off from the internship series and convert it into another entry in our Studying Abroad…series instead. Enjoy!
It sounds like your semester abroad was a formative experience for you… Can you reflect briefly about it: how you decided to study abroad, how you picked the place you went, the experiences you had, and what kind of impact it had on you?
My semester abroad has been one of the most formative experiences of my life. Like many Bethelites, I grew up in the suburbs, living in my own little closed off world, aware of the world out there but not really understanding it. In fall 2011, I studied abroad in Ghana. Why Ghana? Well, in my education in high school, I heard about every single continent in the world except Africa. I always wondered why that was the case, and wanted to pursue why we don’t really talk about it. That was how I originally became interested in Africa. In August of 2009, I spent two weeks in Ethiopia, and my curiosity grew even more. As I wandered through the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela that date back to the 12th century C.E. and is the home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, I wondered how I had never heard of this marvel before. Then in Axum, I saw the building that supposedly houses the Ark of the Covenant and I wondered why they thought it was there. After doing research when I got back to the US, I found out about some ancient literature like the Kebre Negast, other traditions that dated back to the Hebrew King Solomon, and many other stories which were so unique and exciting.
All of this built up the curiosity I had toward the continent of Africa. There was so much that Western education simply did not cover. So I decided to learn more. So when it came to studying abroad, I looked for programs that went to Africa. I thought about going to Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana. I landed with Ghana because the program I chose was smaller, more personal, and was not in the classroom. Instead, most of the experience was meant to be out in the country and to interact with people. This program also had a week-long excursion to Benin, which appealed to me because I want to get to every country in the world at some point (I REALLY like to travel) and this way I could check off three countries (to get to Benin we traveled through Togo). So now I have been to nine UN-recognized countries, only 187 to go!
The trip itself in Ghana was mind-blowing. There were so many experiences that there is no way I could share all of them. But I will highlight a couple. One experience was the first week I spent in Accra. It was at first a little unexpected because you look around, and it is just like any big city. There were sky scrapers, people with smart phones and iPhones, really nice cars, a shopping mall, and other things that made it seem like I was in any big Western city. Ghana and the rest of Africa isn’t backwards like Western news makes it seem, it is honestly better than some places in the US.
Another experience I had was the shock I felt at the amount of obrunyis (foreigners) in Ghana and Benin. It wasn’t necessarily the European or American people that surprised me. It was the Chinese, Lebanese, Brazilian, and Indian people who surprised me. There were many more non-Western obrunyis than Western. This raised my curiosity so much that the last month I was in Ghana, when I did an independent study on a subject of my choice, I chose to write about the foreign phenomenon in Ghana, comparing Chinese and American interests. The paper, which ended up being around 40 pages long, was a very valuable experience of hands-on research.
These experiences amongst many others (like the slave castles, the food, the home stay, public transit, and a trillion others) have certainly left quite the impact on me. I have seen firsthand the impact of American and Chinese foreign policy on other countries. I got to interact with the culture instead of living my culture alongside theirs. By interacting with the culture, I viewed and grasped the reasons behind why people act the way that they do; what inspires them, what unites them, what angers them. Because of this trip, I have realized that my Western worldview, which was shaped by my cultural context, does not always make sense in other cultural contexts. I learned that my views of the world are not the only valid ones.
Jon’s experience in West Africa also shaped the direction of his Senior Seminar paper. Read more about that project (and find links to his earlier posts here at AC 2nd) in our summary of Spring 2012 Senior Sem presentations.