Michelle Long will never forget the scene that greeted her and dozens of other San Diego State students as they pulled up to a school in the tiny town of Kongwa in Tanzania. There, on the side of the road, nearly 1,000 students and villagers cheered, played drums and sang songs of praise and thankfulness to welcome them.
“It was almost more than I could handle,” the liberal studies senior said. “I still get goose bumps every time I describe the event.”
Long’s memorable international experience was part of a university study-abroad, service-learning trip to Tanzania this summer.
The library in Kongwa
The Tanzania Experience was a yearlong endeavor that began when SDSU theater professor Peter Larlham visited the Kwonga school he attended as a young boy.
During a visit two years ago, Larlham toured his former school and was devastated to see the condition of the school’s library.
“(It) consisted of less than 10 books in a tiny, dirty space,” said Chris Frost, associate dean of undergraduate studies, whom Larlham came to with hopes of activating a campuswide initiative.
“Peter promised to ‘send back a box of books’; little did he, or the villagers of Kongwa, know what was to blossom from that seed of a promise.”
Larlham sprang into action upon returning to San Diego.
Several student organizations, led by Phi Kappa Phi and the Honors Council, took up the cause and collected more than 4,000 books, in English, over the course of the 2009-10 school year. Along the way they also collected art supplies and sports equipment, and purchased an additional 1,500 books in Swahili for the school.
Fifteen SDSU students and six faculty members made the 14-day trip to present the books to the school. They spent several days helping to beautify the school grounds and getting acquainted with the children. Students also gave all of the youngsters SDSU backpacks, donated by the Division of Student Affairs, with a book and a treat hidden in each pack.
Shipped months ahead of time, the books were held in customs, so SDSU students were not able to put them on the newly painted shelves. But when the school receives them later this summer, the shipping container will be used for additional space, much in the same way Haitians have made shipping containers their homes amid the rubble of the earthquake.
SDSU's international tradition
The Tanzania Experience is one of many international opportunities offered year-round by SDSU’s Office of International Programs. Last year, more than 1,600 SDSU students participated in study abroad opportunities in more than three dozen countries.
Michelle Long and a classmate help plant a new garden on the Myakongwa school grounds.
“We see international experience as crucial for all students—a high impact learning experience for students that extends beyond the boundaries of the classroom,” Frost said.
“Not only does the travel widen their scope of their world, but in this case it also teaches students about the value of international public service.”
SDSU has expanded its global reach over the past decade. Currently, there are 25 degree programs that require some international experience in order to graduate. In 2000, there was just one.
A memorable experience
For Michelle Long, the adventure abroad is something she will always value.
“The biggest thing I will take away from this experience is that every person you meet will have an impact on you one way or another,” she said, recalling in particular Vincent, the group’s driver.
“He was such a great guy and we got along so well that he even gave me a nickname—‘da da karakacha,’” Long said. “In English, it means ‘crazy sister,’ but in Swahili it means ‘funny or outgoing.’
“When he told me that, I felt pretty honored because once a person receives a nickname in Swahili it means that the person giving the nickname feels a bond with the other person that is deeper than just acquaintances. And since I received the nickname from someone I will always remember, it is even more special to me.”
During the rest of the trip, the group toured East Africa, making stops at the spice plantations in Zanzibar, the waterfalls at Mikumi National Park and a safari in the Selous Game Reserve.
“I would encourage all students to study abroad,” Long said.
“If you think it’s impossible or you can’t afford it, you’re wrong. For the longest time, I thought I wasn’t able to go because of my financial situation, but there are people out there who want to help. So don’t give up quickly just because you don’t think you have the time or money to go. Of all of the experiences you will have in life, it will definitely be among the most memorable.”
Editor's Note: Thank you to SDSU film student Taylor Butz for providing the excellent video from Africa.