Several Virginia Tech students, staff, and faculty members traveled to Africa in summer 2010 to teach in Malawi schools for a month. This is not your typical study-abroad experience. Picture a classroom filled with more than 100 children sitting side-by-side on the floor -- many barefoot, most smiling, dozens famished.
The Virginia Tech group learned firsthand about the culture and the education system in a country where the primary languages spoken in the villages are Chichewe or Yao and where children are challenged by the daily confrontations of poverty and hunger. The group also took side trips to learn about sustainable agriculture practices, health issues, and cultural history.
“Service learning is a reciprocal learning experience,” said group leader and School of Education Professor Patricia Kelly, “where students engage and work in a different environment and, in so doing, learn not only about themselves but the lives and cultures of others.
“Similarly, the people our students work with also learn about themselves and others,” Kelly said. “Lives are enriched in not only practical ways that can be accounted for [students taught, projects completed, and more] but in intrinsic ways often hard to quantify.”
Known as the “Warm Heart of Africa,” Malawi has earned a reputation for its compassionate population.
“One clear way that this trip changed me was experiencing the Malawians’ true joy,” said Becca FitzGerald, a sophomore from Chesapeake, Va. “Their joy does not come from the latest iPhone or newest car -- it certainly does not come from things. They do not find their happiness in possessions, but rather in people, relationships, and family.”
FitzGerald, who is majoring in human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, noted, “Every time we met someone new on the trip, they would say: ‘Welcome to Malawi! This is your second home! We are family now!’ And they really meant it.”
“No other experience has taught me more than this trip,” said Lauren Scheid, a senior psychology major in the College of Science. “I now think about how each of us is born into culture and how these cultures form our everyday lives,” the Pearisburg, Va., native said. “This experience has molded me into a better person, not because of what I did for them, but what their culture, the relationships I formed, and their genuine happiness did for me.”
Virginia Tech students prepared daily lessons and quickly learned that the younger children focused by engaging in song. “In Africa, they do not waste time getting all the kids to focus,” FitzGerald said. “They sing a song to bring the kids in. Singing is contagious, and once the teacher and a few kids from the front start singing, the kids in the back start singing and pretty soon the whole class is focused on the teacher. It was an amazingly simple yet effective technique.”
With the help of donations from Blacksburg dentists, Malawi students were introduced to tooth-brushing, an act usually performed with a splayed stick. The students taught geography with maps they had brought with them and worked on English by pointing to body parts, colors, and hand-drawn visuals. They even educated with rousing rounds of the “Hokie-Pokie.”
“Teaching such a large fifth-grade class of non-English speaking children scared me at first, but the children made it easy because of their enthusiasm and desire to learn,” said Kristen Haley, a senior human development major from Glen Allen, Va.
Lee Rakes, a doctoral candidate in educational psychology from Bassett, Va., collected data on how Malawi secondary students view intelligence; whether it’s fixed or malleable. While he said he appreciated the academic opportunity for a future publication and conference presentation, Rakes also noted “the experience expanded my culture perspective in that I was able to more easily envision a holistic, dynamic system of human existence. I felt more connected to human beings and less a part of the esoteric bubble that being an American tends to create.”
Another education doctoral candidate, Brad Hager of Blacksburg, Va., taught a course on entrepreneurship in the secondary school. He also interviewed several business owners and plans to turn his blog into a book, I Am Banana Man: Named and Defined by the Children of Malawi.
“Although I’ve been to Malawi more than two dozen times, each summer, when I see the country and its people through the eyes of my students, everything becomes new and fresh for me,” Kelly said. “No matter how much we give, we receive so much more through increased appreciation of what we have and a heightened world view.”
For more than a decade, Virginia Tech has partnered with the African nation of Malawi to improve its education system. Patricia Kelly, a professor in the School of Education, has made 27 trips to the small southern country -- several with a contingent of faculty, staff, and students from Virginia Tech, Radford University, and North Carolina A&T in a study-abroad experience.
Kelly, Jennifer Jones, and Virginia Tech alumna Liz Barber, professors at Radford and North Carolina A&T, respectively, guided their fifth consecutive collaborative trip in summer 2010. Over the years, friendships have formed and the team created the Chibale (pronounced che bah’ lay and meaning relationship) Project, establishing in 2007 a cross-continental community.
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