You are here: American University School of Education News & Events Students Travel to Senegal to Study the Impact of Racism


Students Travel to Senegal to Study the Impact of Racism

Exploring Community and Decolonization in Africa

By  | 

SOE Students in Senegal

In July, eleven of sixteen students from a School of Education (SOE) elective course, mostly burgeoning educators with aspirations of fortifying their teaching and work goals with antiracist principles, embarked on a transformative twelve-day experiential learning trip to Senegal.

For a second consecutive year, SOE’s Master of Arts in International Training and Education Program (ITEP) has greatly enhanced students’ learning experience via a summer course taught with a nonformal education (NFE) learning structure and bolstered by a travel component, where its students, faculty, and educational partners together immersed themselves in community building in a distant milieu pillared by antiracist tenets. 

Last summer, students of a pilot course launched by ITEP Program Director Dr. Elizabeth A. Worden and SOE Scholar in Residence Dr. Michael GibbonsNonformal Education for Social Change, spent a week on an Appalachian mountainside of Tennessee at the historic Highlander Research and Education Center, a landmark with a rich legacy of civil rights activism.

This year, Gibbons and Dr. Terence Ngwa, Director of SOE’s Antiracist Administration, Supervision, and Leadership (ARASL) certificate program and Senior Professorial Lecturer, created an online antiracist pedagogy-themed NFE course also centered on community building, EDU-596, Study Trip to Senegal: Historical and Transatlantic Perspectives on Antiracist Teaching.

The decision to incorporate a visit to Senegal emanated from Ngwa. “Focused education and antiracism go hand in hand,” he reflected. “It is my strong belief that we cannot fully understand racism or successfully employ our antiracist efforts without understanding the plight of victims of racism from hundreds of years ago, as well as where it occurred.”

Throughout the trip, and in conjunction with Tostan International - a Senegalese-based NFE program - students participated in regular meetings with members of a local non-governmental organization, Associate in Research and Education for Development (ARED), as well as with Senegalese Ministry of Education officials and community management committees, to discuss the severe impact of slavery and racism. They also met with members of the country’s civil society, visiting multiple villages to observe its villagers and their communities to glean details about their work lives and ability to apply action to achieve results of decolonization and self-determination.

EdD program alum Noëlle Taylor and EdD student Jamila Smith were moved by both the course and the community building exercises they participated in during the transatlantic trip. “One of the things that stood out most was the collective nature of the work that was being done in the days before and after we were in Senegal,” said Taylor. “Tostan really modeled what it is to be a collectivist in a society thousands of miles away from one’s home. Having the opportunity to be in a place where you see the effects of colonization in real time and making the connections of how things were transferred from one continent to another was such a powerful way to learn.”

Smith recalled, “There were so many unique experiences. It was one thing to sit with my colleagues and learn about community building strategies from the training with Molly [Melching, founder and creative director of Tostan International], but the pivotal moment was when we actually visited villages and sat and listened to the women talk about their five-year plan for their villages, the money-making strategies they have for the village, and what they intended to plant. These community women working together and leading the conversation with children seated around them was a pivotal experience of community building for me.”

The trip ultimately resulted in students learning more about themselves and developing a sharper ability to discern and practice how they can establish or hone a framework to de-colonize curriculum and policies which contribute to increases of inequitable educational outcomes for underserved students.

History major Josiah Carolina, the class’s sole undergraduate student, opined the trip as an impetus. “This trip was wonderful. I got to see something very fascinating," he said. “Senegal was the beginning of a lifelong journey of my trying to understand who I am. Self-identity work and identity work must come first as it relates to the action and practice of antiracism and decolonization. The trip and my learning a history that was very real, very true, and directly from Senegalese people – and from Drs. Ngwa and Gibbons - rather than through institutions where this type of information isn’t always accessible, really showed me that this identity work is possible.”

For many of the students, the most indelible activity was their visit to Gorée Island - the location of one of the main ports of transit where captives were brought, bought, and shipped off to the Americas. ITEP student Tori Jackson-Patterson recalled, “Gorée Island is a place of paradox. Experiencing the depth of beauty at the place of origin for one of humankind's greatest atrocities felt mismatched. Swimming in the very same part of the ocean that was the location of physical death to so many struck me as surreal and unsettling. I directly experienced and marinated in the island’s functioning as a retainer to keep these horrific stories of abduction and death alive and not letting time wash away these tragedies. This made it an incredibly powerful and important site in the annals of human history.”

The course and trip enabled students to trace historic roots of racism via curriculum and a visit to Senegal, affording them a clearer understanding of the evolution of the racism of past periods to its modern-day state. 

Dr. Gibbons summed up the experience. “I think that this was the illustration of what community building looks like. It generates this kind of plurality of insights and wisdom which we weave together and gain so much from. My brilliant colleagues with whom we shared this trip, our esteemed collaborators from Tostan, and the information providers from the Ministry, communities, and cultural institutions pulled us out of our comfort zone into a stretch zone which complicated and deepened our understanding, helping us connect theory and practice ideas in action in a very concrete way. It all motivates people to embrace new thinking and new behavior for a new phase of struggles for justice through education.”

Related Webinar
Watch participants of the course share their learning experience in this video presentation featuring students Nicholas Caraballo, Josiah Carolina, Joytrese George, Jarren Newby, Jamila Smith, Noëlle Taylor; SOE Dean Dr. Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy; and course co-Instructors Ngwa and Gibbons.

Read more