UNCA student travels to Ghana and gains life-changing experience through studying abroad

By Rachel McGirt – Contributing Writer – rmcgirt@unca.edu

Photo By Rachel McGirt The young girl sitting in my lap is Irene. We were able to spend a lot of time with one another. I really loved working with her and the other children in her class.
Photo By Rachel McGirt
The young girl sitting in my lap is Irene. We were able to spend a lot of time with one another. I really loved working with her and the other children in her class.

This past summer, I had the pleasure of spending four weeks in Ghana while participating in the UNC Asheville study abroad program with several professors and students.

During our trip we taught various subjects at schools in Koforidua, Cape Coast, and Kumasi while volunteering. I taught English. While in those cities we also had the opportunity to travel to various tourists sites and mingle with local people. I had many different expectations for the trip.

Honestly, I had a very “Americanized” view of West African countries that had already been embedded in my mind. I’m not at all embarrassed to say that I was indeed very uneducated about what was really there and that I, a black woman, tried to generalize a whole continent.

Prior to my trip to Ghana, I had never traveled outside of the United States. I was just a young college student who grew up in Durham. I had my views of what it would be like to spend time in the “Motherland.” I expected to see people in colorful dashikis, beautiful landscapes, and exotic animals.

Now that I have traveled to Ghana, not only has my view of West Africa changed, but my perspective on the world has been changed forever and definitely for the better, primarily  because of my interaction with the people of Ghana. Ghanaians have much national pride, hospitality and love despite the economic challenges and deep poverty many of them face due to lack of basic necessities such as adequate housing and clean drinking water.

My trip to Ghana has made me a more patient and resilient person. It has shown me that the wealthy person is not the person who receives material things but instead the person who gives of oneself to help or encourage others.

At first I didn’t think it would be possible for me to attend the study abroad trip to Ghana. I figured that as a student-athlete I would have to spend majority of my summer in Asheville, participating in summer school and summer workouts. But in the end both of them worked out. I knew that my experience would be a little different than the others in my group. For one thing, I was a student-athlete traveling during the summer. This isn’t something that is common, especially within my sport.

Secondly, I was the only African-American student attending. For some, you may think that doesn’t matter, but it really meant so much more than what the eye could see. The trip to Ghana was a different trip for everyone in my group. We all had different reasons for choosing to study in Ghana. It’s probably so cliché that because I am black, I decided to study in Africa. Well quite honestly that is the reason why. This was not my “going home” trip. Like most African-Americans, I do not know what part of Africa my family originated from. But I believe ancestry can be traced back to the continent. Therefore, it was important that I attend this trip.

The two classes we took while we were there were a chemistry course and an education class. Taking the two classes earned me seven credit hours over the summer. Although I had a great time taking the chemistry class and participating in all of the hands-on activities, I was most interested in the education class.

Photo by Rachel McGirt Here I am forming clay into shapes with one of the primary students at the Montessori school that we attended for a day.
Photo by Rachel McGirt
Here I am forming clay into shapes with one of the primary students at the Montessori school that we attended for a day.

I will never forget my first day going to the school. There was a swarm of children in the courtyard around our bus. It was literally a sea of smiling brown faces in orange and brown school uniforms. They were singing, waving, dancing and doing just about anything that an excited child would do when they have a visitor at their school. Just by seeing their faces, I knew that I was going to have a wonderful time.

Teaching and observing at the schools was much different than the volunteer work I do here in America. The children still acted like children. They were silly, and they loved to laugh. They made jokes, and I lost their attention at times. But they have inspired me to not only want to be an educator, but to educate myself even more. The children in the schools there had a true thirst for knowledge.

The most powerful moment I had while helping at one of the schools was when I was observing. I sat there for a moment and I looked around at the classroom. A classroom built with cement blocks and yellow paint. There was one blackboard, and several short pieces of chalk. There were no windows, no doors and no electricity. Two benches sat in the middle of the room. There clearly wasn’t enough space for the children to sit comfortably.

I then began to watch the children. As I sat in the back of the room I noticed two little girls. They were doing their work, but there was only one book and one pencil. I didn’t really understand what they were doing until I watched a little closer. The two little girls were working together so that they could both complete their work and turn it in. They sat there and diligently completed their assignments without any help or push from the teacher.

One girl would complete a part of the work and then pass her pencil and book over to the next girl so she could complete the problem, too. You would think not having supplies would cause a child to not want to do their work, but they didn’t let that stop them. It moved me because that showed me that I have no excuse to not work hard, and always give my best. But it was also powerful for me because at such a young age those children already knew the value of education. Valuing anything has to come from the heart, and when you own that value no one can take it from you.

The trip to Ghana made me more appreciative of the little things in life. It was heartbreaking having to see people who lived in extreme levels of poverty. I didn’t particularly love having to teach children who walked to school with no shoes on. What hurt most was not being able to offer more than my smile and desire to work with them. But then I realized something that was pivotal for me and for the rest of my experience on the trip. Why should I be sad, if everyone that I have encountered is able to wear a smile?

According to American standards, I met some people (because everyone I met was not living in poverty, which is another misconception people have of West Africa) who have “nothing.” But I will say that the people I met have everything. No, they did not drive brand new 2013 Mercedes, they did not live in two-story homes, and they were not rocking the newest pair of Jordan shoes. But through the hardships they encountered every day, they were happy.

It was a type of happiness that was pure. It did not stem from their shopping trip at the mall, or the full four course meal they had just eaten. It was a type of happiness that came from the soul. They were happy from what I thought was so basic. Like waking up to your family and being able to go outside and smell fresh air. I learned from that that some rich people have lots of material things, but are still poor if they get no happiness from things money cannot buy.

To be honest, I love having money and making money because of what it can do for you. Also, I do believe that some of my happiness comes from some of the tangible items that I possess. Is that shallow? No, not at all. I believe that is honesty. We all love enjoying the benefits of living in our simplified Western culture. Yet we don’t realize how blessed we are.

We get angry over not being able to watch our favorite show on TV, or why the air conditioning isn’t working in our dorms. We need to open our eyes and see there are people who are praying for the things we take for granted every single day of our lives and who are actually satisfied with the lives they have.

Had I not gone on this trip, I know for a fact I would not be the woman I am today. The trip to Ghana was a true blessing.  I would not have the same attitude toward global issues, a deep passion for change, or a true desire to work harder intellectually. Going to Ghana, and just traveling in general exposes you and makes you vulnerable. It tests your patience, your resilience, and your confidence. I did not come back the same person. The woman that left America May 24, 2013, came back four weeks later a brand new person.

No, I am not trying to “save Africa.” That is not possible. More importantly, there is so much saving that needs to be done in our country and communities. But I have realized the best “saving” I can do is bettering myself and being a light for people who can’t shine themselves.

One thought on “UNCA student travels to Ghana and gains life-changing experience through studying abroad

  • October 7, 2013 at 5:08 pm
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    Dear Rachel,

    I am so very proud that you spent a summer in West Africa. As an amateur family historian, my research has led me to believe that McGirt family members originated from Ghana and possibly deported for the Ivory Coast area to America. When I visisted Nigeria, many Africans thought I was Ghanian based on my appearance alone. In addition, a NC State anthropology professor, relayed to my brother John that he was 95% certain he is Ashanti based on height and statue, ease of learning math and science and overall inteligence, athleticism, facial features, etc. So my dear cousin you were probably closer to our African homeland than you were aware of. Did anyone you encountered resemble family members?
    Cousin Albertina

    Reply

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