LSA senior Myra Marie Tetteh has been to Ghana many times. She travels to the African continent every other summer, visiting family and doing humanitarian work.
“I think everyone should take the time to go to another country,” she said, “Its an opportunity to debunk any misconceptions you have.”
Every year, University students pack up their books and board planes to do just that. Students from all over the United States attend study-abroad programs in locations all across the globe. While thousands of students take part in these programs every year, only a small percentage of them visit Africa.
The Office of International Programs offers more than 80 study abroad programs in 36 different countries worldwide. But African countries are visited least frequently; this semester, only seven University students are studying in one of Africa’s 54 nations, compared with almost 40 students studying in Britain alone.
These seven students are all studying at the University of Cape Town, located in Cape Town, South Africa. While the University also offers a yearlong program in Senegal, there are no students participating this year.
Carol Dickerman, director of the Office of International Programs, said the major cause of these deficient statistics is simply that students are not as interested in studying in Africa as they are in studying Western Europe or Australia.
“For most students,” she said, “there is a list of what they want to see first, and Western Europe is at the top of their list.”
She explained students are more inclined to study in Europe because they are more familiar with the continent’s history and various cultures.
“I think we are a country that looks mostly to Western Europe for our heritage,” she said, “The languages that students learn in high school and at the University and the kinds of courses that they teach are very much focused on Europe.”
Elizabeth James, program manager for the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies agreed. “The tradition of (academia in the United States) follows the western academies that you find in Europe, and (students aren’t) as familiar with the universities say in Timbuktu, or ancient Mali.”
LSA senior Carrie Calcutt, who went to South Africa last semester to participate in the study abroad program at the University of Cape Town, said the negative stigma surrounding Africa and lack of knowledge about the continent “has a lot to do with the lack of students interested in studying there.”
Misconceptions of Africa cause many Americans to view the continent as impoverished and overrun by violence and war said LSA junior Wiata Weeks who studied in Ghana. “Many parts of Africa are developed, thriving cities,” she said, “not all jungle and wilderness.”
Calcutt echoed her sentiments, saying “My friends even warned me not to get AIDS and malaria when I went abroad, as though these (diseases) were easy to contract.”
She added that safety is a major concern for students considering studying abroad in an African country. However, she said in her own experience this fear was unfounded.
“Going to South Africa, I knew that I was going to a big city, Cape Town, and knew that I was not going to be in the middle of a political war within the country,” she said. “I did not feel in any more danger when I was abroad than … in the United States or anywhere else.”
Although program coordinators expressed assurance in student’s security in study programs in Africa, safety concerns last year caused the temporary termination of the OIP’s program in Accra, Ghana.
Dickerman said the safety issues with the program centered around the security of students within the dorms on the campus in Accra, involving several incidents with non-University American students.
While she said she could not provide specific details about the incidents, Dickerman said, “There was a perception based on actual incidents that the dorms (at the University of Ghana) were not safe. We discussed it with our executive community. The decision was that until we thought it was safe on campus, we shouldn’t send students to Ghana.”
Despite the termination of the program, Dickerman stressed the safety issues were isolated on the campus of the University of Ghana, and did not reflect the overall security within the country of Ghana.
“Those concerns have been largely addressed now, and at this point we are going to be working with CAAS, because I think that they are interested in developing a program in Ghana. It’s not that the country is unsafe,” she said.
Several different types of programs are offered through OIP, including University collaborations with foreign universities, small trips led by University professors and programs through other American universities.
In spite of the numerous programs available to undergraduate and graduate students, Dickerman said most students’ interest in places such as Africa and Asia develops after they are finished with college, such as graduates who volunteer in African countries with aid-relief organizations like the U.S. Peace Corps.
She added that she does not expect to see these figures increasing in the near future, pointing back to most students’ unfamiliarity with African language and culture.
“I wish we did send more students to Africa,” she said, “but we also have to realistically keep in mind that we’re never going to send comparable numbers of students.” She added that as long as European languages are more popular to study this trend will continue.