My STEP signature project was service learning experience available through BuckIServ in collaboration with The Akumanyi Foundation (TAF) taking place primarily in Akokwa, Ghana. We were primarily tasked with assisting the kids and staff of the orphanage / school (Engyankwa Wo Enyiadad Children’s Home) with their day to day chores. When the kids were not in school we spent a lot of time playing with them and getting to know them. When we were not doing this we were taking care of our own living space or visiting different historically significant sites around the Central Region of Ghana with TAF staff.
I believe I developed a more refined picture of how I viewed American culture in relation to other cultures, and my place in the world. Although it may seem cliché, I think my former understanding of other people around me, and therefore myself, was too ethnocentric. The culture of the USA is so vastly different from Ghanaian culture, and American culture is the dominant form of normative authority in my life. One major difference is that American culture is extremely individualistic and Ghana is deeply collectivist. This made me think about the forms of social support that I have been privileged to have in my life and how different that same form of social support looks in the Ghanaian context. What I feel like has changed the most from this is the idea of what fulfills the role of family as a form of social support in the stereotypically American sense.
I would say there are definitely three main sources that put all of the experiences I had on this trip into context. The first group were the kids in the orphanage / school. The kids of the orphanage were the group of people we intended on going to Akokwa to serve in the first place. WE spent a lot of time with them playing games, but also we got to know a bit about how they treated each other and what they wanted for themselves. Especially from the older kids who were thinking about what their future would be like. One of the advisors that were on the trip with me brought up the point that kids in the orphanage thought of each other and the staff at the orphanage as their family. I hadn’t given that idea much thought before, and once that idea settled in my mind I started to change my own opinion on what a family looks like.
The second group is definitely the TAF staff. The staff was made up of three people who I feel privileged to call my friends now. They are native to the Central Region of Ghana, and they have had a lot of experience with student groups like ours before. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to them a lot about their lives, what it was like to grow up in their communities, and what their family life was like. I also learned a great deal about how their family shapes the way they develop a sense of respect for themselves, members of their family, and others in their community. Also, whenever we went to a different place in the central region to learn about other projects TAF was a part of, or to learn some history about Ghana they were always there to offer their point of view on historical events which was completely different sometimes from what I thought I already knew.
The third group of people were my fellow OSU students and advisors. All of us were experiencing the same environment, but each of us had a unique way of interpreting that experience. We had multiple reflection talks about the things we were doing on a day to day basis that helped me notice things I wouldn’t have been able to wrap my mind around by myself. Everyone brought their own voice to the table and that dialogue helped reshape the way I was thinking about the experiences we all shared. I was also lucky to get to know many of them, and hear how their own backgrounds worked to inform the way they perceived the different experiences we had.
There is no shortage of valuable experiences I have gained from this opportunity. Firstly, I had the unique opportunity to spend time with other like-minded Ohio State students who have a passion for service, and I would likely not have had the chance to meet them otherwise. I have built strong friendships with the people I met, and hopefully these relationships last. This was the first time in my life that I travelled internationally without someone I already knew very well, in turn being the furthest outside my comfort zone I have ever been since going from high-school to college. I learned how to become comfortable in an unfamiliar environment, and how to build strong and productive relationships quickly. I also learned how to build relationships with people whose entire lives have been shaped by a completely different culture. All of these are invaluable skills that also have direct applications to my intended career path in the medical field. As a medical professional the ability to develop genuine and trusting relationships with colleagues and patients who may come from any type of background is a necessary skill to be able to do the job well. This is also something that can’t really be learned in a classroom, but also doesn’t necessarily need to be learned through a service learning trip like this. However, having this opportunity accelerated my growth on that front to a significant degree, and I will forever be grateful for it.