The Year of Return: A Study-Abroad Experience for Students of Color

In the fall, I co-led nine students of color on an eight-day excursion to Ghana. The trip was formally led by Dr. Emmanuel Balogun, assistant professor of International Relations and chair of the Global MA International Relations program at Webster University as part of an Introduction to Africana Studies course.

The trip was the result of a multi-year initiative to increase the number of study-abroad experiences for black students and students of color at Webster. With campuses around the globe, Webster boasts a robust study abroad program. However, black students do not always take advantage of these opportunities citing financial difficulties, work obligations, going alone, or not wanting to be gone for such a long time.

Studies of study abroad programs at Webster and elsewhere demonstrate higher retention rates for students who participate. The idea emerged to create a short-term study abroad experience designed for African American students over fall break and eliminate various barriers that prevented their participation. Working with the Webster University Ghana campus, the university created a three-credit-hour Introduction to Africana Studies course and experiential learning program. The innovative study abroad experience was supported by the Chancellor’s Vision Fund and support Webster received as a partner in the St. Louis Talent Hub.

In Ghana, the students learned about the social, political and economic linkages between their lives in America today and the history of the African Diaspora. The itinerary was jam-packed and included visiting the famed Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum (the resting place of Ghana’s first president), the bustling Central Market to buy traditional Ghanaian fabrics and experience the vibrancy of Accra, seeing the African American Ancestral Wall, and enjoying traditional Ghanaian cuisine.

We met with Webster students attending university on the Ghana campus and participated in a community service project. We traveled to Kumasi to visit to the royal Manhyia Palace, sitting place of the Asante Kingdom, and the Ntonso Adinkra Village where they stamp Adinkra symbols onto cloth, representing proverbs and aspirations rooted in the Akan tradition. We toured the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre and had the privilege of sitting in on trial sessions at the Supreme Court of Ghana.

Perhaps the most transformative portion of the trip occurred in the Central region. We had the opportunity to experience the Assin Manso Slave River – the last reported bathing place of Africans who were captured for enslavement before they were sold into captivity. The group intimately connected to the experiences of our ancestors by walking barefoot through the woods and standing in the river. From there, the group visited the Cape Coast and Elmina castle, the oldest and largest slave dungeon in the world.

Overall, the cohort experience, even for the faculty and staff, was more than a trip to Africa. It caused all of us to reflect on the history of westernization and the definition of “home”. How could we feel “home” in a place where we were foreigners? What would we take back from our experience in Ghana to our “home” in St. Louis? How could we sustain the power of our shared experience?

As part of the course, the students curated a final project that narrated the cohort’s experience in Ghana and will present that project at various points during the academic year. They will also serve as peer mentors in the Academic Resource Center for incoming students of color.

In the year marking the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans being brought to America, the study abroad experience was life-altering for the students, faculty and administrators who took part, providing a vehicle for thinking critically about cultural similarities and difference and shared destiny with African people.

Corey Hawkins, Transitions Coordinator, Academic Resource Center, Webster University