Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Course sends students on a trip and a journey

Wheaton students have fun in Tanzania by putting on a skit to celebrate Professor Donna Kerner’s birthday.

Wheaton students have fun in Tanzania by putting on a skit to celebrate Professor Donna Kerner’s birthday.

Before last summer, Brittany Whynot ’12 had never traveled outside of the United States. So when she joined Professor of Anthropology Donna Kerner and 12 other Wheaton students for a course in Tanzania in June, she didn’t know what to expect.

Children react to seeing photos taken by Brittany Whynot ’12, a psychology major and journalism minor.

She could not have imagined all that she would discover there. She and other students say that not only was the trip a real-life expansion of classroom coursework about people and culture, it also was a journey that broadened their own personal perspectives on life.

“I wanted to step away from a sheltered life I seemed to be living and to broaden my horizons and expand my mind a bit,” said Whynot, a psychology major. “I wanted to get out there and meet new people; people who could teach me things that I couldn’t necessarily gain here. I wanted to influence others and make a positive difference in someone’s life…. This trip was exactly what I was looking for.”

Sophie Bergelson ’12 and Sally Dexter ’12 enjoy a motorcyle ride with their host father.

In Tanzania, the group traveled to contrasting cities (Moshi and Arusha); visited historic sites and development projects; attended lectures from local researchers; visited a Maasai wildlife conservation reserve; and spent two weeks living in a rural village at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. Students also stayed with local families for one weekend, and taught English in a local high school. (That experience alone showed anthropology major Sally Dexter ’12 that she has the ability to teach, which she doubted she could do.) History major Eleanor Bradford ’11and Sophie Bergelson ’12, a French major, even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

Uhuru Peak on Mount Killimanjaro

“One of my most incredible moments was reaching Uhuru Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro at 6:30 a.m., just as the sun rose, after seven hours of hiking,” said Bradford. “My grandfather died this spring and I carried his ashes to Uhuru and released them into the crater. As a hiker and world traveler, I know he would love to know that he participated in the journey to the roof of Africa.

“I really loved seeing Tanzania from different perspectives throughout our trip…. I was able to understand many aspects of Tanzanian culture because of the different roles I took on as a visitor, and I cannot imagine my life without those experiences.”

Kerner, who teaches two courses on Africa, has been doing field research in Tanzania since 1982 on a range of topics, from education and social class to gender and famine.

She said she created this pilot one-credit course in Tanzania, “East Africa: Education and Development,” hoping that it would ignite students’ curiosity and passion for travel off the beaten path, and put a human face on some of the complex policy issues targeting development in the Third World. She also wanted the course to help students learn to speak and think in a different cognitive domain, and connect with people whose lives are different from their own.

Eleanor Bradford spent seven hours hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro.

According to the students, the experience was as rich as she had hoped. Several students said they let go of preconceived notions about Africa and eagerly embraced the gamut of emotions they felt from start to finish.

“I was expecting to see poverty, unhappiness and very little opportunity for the people. To a degree, I was right,” said Whynot. “There was poverty everywhere and very little opportunity for many people, most prominently in regard to education for students. It cut me deep when I saw the lives these people lived. But the one thing that put me at ease and really impacted me was how happy people were. They were so kind, generous and thankful for everything they had. The hospitality was unbelievable. It was surprising at first to see such happiness. They live each day to the fullest and live comfortably and happily with what they have. I admire that. I took that observation home with me and will always carry it with me.”

Anthropology major Claire Rowell ’12 experienced a similar shift in her views. Tanzanians have a different take on community than most Westerners. They rely on each other, she notes.

Bradford and Sophie Bergelson pose with their hiking guide.

Also, said Rowell, “as a child, I understood parenting as mostly between parent and child, one that required constant attention and care. [In Tanzania] what was at first shocking was the children’s independence in the village. Many very young children would walk around by themselves, wander in groups, and find new and innovative ways to play. It was refreshing to see parenting as a community-based effort, as the children were welcome in all the houses.”

Whynot sums up the profound impact Tanzania had on her, saying, “This trip has slowly helped me discover who I am and what I want to contribute to the world.

“I want to be accountable. I want to make a difference and I want to experience the lives of others who are so different yet so similar to me. It doesn’t matter where we live in the world, what our values or ideals are, or what we do for a living. We are all trying to live the life we were given and we are no different than the person living next to us.”