Students visit Africa to probe development and health; photo gallery

From doctors and diamond-company executives to diplomats and charging elephants, ten Gettysburg College students experienced the rich diversity of Africa firsthand as they examined issues of development and health.

Economics Prof. Eileen Stillwaggon, who has written extensively on the intersection of poverty and AIDS, led students on a 14-day journey through Botswana and South Africa this past winter break.

The students -- including members of Stillwaggon's International Affairs senior seminar on health and development and undergraduate fellows of Gettysburg College's Eisenhower Institute for leadership and public policy -- created individual research plans for the trip and stayed with host families in Botswana.

See photos with captions.

"We wanted them to see the countryside, the neighborhoods, the villages, farms, mining areas, and the stark contrasts of southern Africa -- in geography, architecture, population density, and living standards," said Stillwaggon, who is also the College and Institute's Harold G. Evans-Eisenhower Professor. "So we rented two large vans and drove from Johannesburg to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, and back across South Africa to the border with Mozambique  -- 1,500 miles in two weeks."

Along the way, students examined development issues at locales such as a cattle ranch and an electric cable factory, and met with representatives of the Botswana's Ministry of Agriculture. Students investigated questions of ecological tourism at game preserves and South Africa's Kruger National Park, where pachyderms charged the group's vehicles.

Students heard firsthand from practitioners who address HIV/AIDS, cancer, tuberculosis, and other public health issues, and from representatives of Botswana's Ministry of Health and organizations providing aid such as the Peace Corps and European Union.

They also met with a U.S. Embassy officer, who addressed both Botswana's political situation and questions about careers in foreign service, and with a representative of the Institute for Development Management, which trains leaders in Botswana.

"The students had constant conversations about the enormous diversity of African politics, economics, and styles," Stillwaggon said. "The students saw that Africa is not all poverty, that there are reasons for optimism, and that Africans have developed and maintained good facilities and institutions, and have done a good job of husbanding resources."

"In Botswana and South Africa, I was able to find common ground with people whom I've never met before; to observe how they utilize their scarce resources such as water and try to share among each other was the most valuable lesson I learned," said Eisenhower Institute Fellow Lyudmila "Lucy" Marinova, Class of 2012.

Botswanan student played special role

A Gettysburg College student from Botswana played a special role in the trip's success, said Stillwaggon. "Eisenhower Fellow Atlang Mompe, Class of 2010, participated in all aspects of organizing the trip. She recruited her grandparents, Miriam and James Honold, to find host families for the students." Stillwaggon and Mompe previously traveled to Botswana in 2007 to conduct research related to HIV/AIDS, and in 2009, when both presented at an international conference on AIDS.

Since taking Stillwaggon's first-year seminar on AIDS issues and realizing that her fellow students "could not visualize countries like Botswana," Mompe has been dreaming of taking fellow students to Africa. "Seeing is believing," she said. "What better way to help the students understand than visiting the south end of the Motherland?" She said the trip was invaluable for her too, enabling her to interact with agencies she might not encounter as an ordinary citizen.

In addition to American students on the most recent trip, international students hailed from other African nations and Bulgaria. "For the African students, it was a new experience visiting a different part of Africa or seeing Africa through the experiences of their fellow students," Stillwaggon said.

"Going back to Africa after a year and half truly felt like going back home to Zimbabwe," said Munyaradzi T. Choga, Class of 2012. "My view of Botswana and South Africa changed during this trip. As opposed to the usual vacation travels and spending most of the time in some hotel, I was immersed in the culture of the local people. Most memorable was the time spent with my host family who took care of me like their own. The activities that we participated in as a whole gave me broader perspective of the Southern African region."

Stillwaggon has led students on numerous trips to African nations, Slovenia, Nicaragua, and other locales with her husband Larry Sawers, an economics professor at American University, who co-led the Botswana trip.

In keeping with Gettysburg College's goal of making study-abroad experiences affordable for students, generous funding sources limited the price of the trip to $250 per student. Sources included the IW Seiden-Levi Fund, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Eisenhower Institute, and the College departments and programs in which the students were majors, including Africana Studies, Economics, Globalization Studies, Health Sciences, International Affairs, and Political Science.

Public Health, Human Prosperity, and Justice: Public Policy in the African Diaspora is a major theme of the Eisenhower Institute this year and the topic of this year's Central Pennsylvania Consortium Africana Studies Conference on campus.

"Once in a lifetime"

The trip made an impact on Lexie Hearn, Class of 2010 and co-captain of the Bullets women's lacrosse team, who wrote:

I am a political science major with a concentration in international relations as well as an international affairs major, yet before this winter I had spent very little time outside of the United States.

In many of my classes, students would use their experiences from abroad to further explain and understand a topic in class and as much as I enjoyed reading and listening to other people's experiences, I craved for one of my own.

So, when Prof. Stillwaggon presented me with the opportunity to study in Southern Africa, I couldn't say yes fast enough.

One of the greatest things I took from the trip was a greater understanding of a whole other part of the world and the struggles and successes of the people in Botswana. The people of Botswana are exceptionally friendly and welcoming, constantly greeting each other and saying hi to strangers. My host family not only welcomed us into their house but they made us feel a part of their family.

From this trip I have come away with a once in a lifetime experience and a whole lot of great new friends.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition that includes Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate and other distinguished scholars among its alumni. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Jim Hale, online content editor

Posted: Thu, 4 Mar 2010

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