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Ghana study abroad teaches culture, arts, self-discovery

Oct. 3, 2006
By Mary Reed

 Study Abroad Fair set for Oct. 9

Ohio University's next Study Abroad Fair will be held Monday, Oct. 9, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Baker University Center Ballroom.

The fair will showcase exhibits from more than 30 countries including England, Japan, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Australia and France. Scholarship, passport and other information will be available as well. In addition, free tee-shirts and other prizes will be given away.

The Office of Education Abroad also offers Study Abroad Basics, meeting every Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. in Gordy 203. For more information, visit the Education Abroad Web site at www.ohiou.edu/studyabroad.

When Lauren Elliott walked into the study abroad fair in the Baker Center ballroom last year, most of the tables looked pretty much the same -- flags, videos, brochures of the country at hand. But one table stood out with its bright batik fabrics, drums and people dressed in African clothing who told her a trip to their host country would change her life. It was at that moment the psychology major from Cincinnati asked herself, "When else am I gonna get to go to Ghana for three weeks?"

After convincing her parents, paying her tuition and getting her immunizations, Elliott set off for Ghana, which turned out to be unique and colorful in more ways than that table had promised. In addition, she and other participants learned about African art and culture -- and about themselves.

"I learned I can do anything," Elliott said in reference to the things all study abroad students deal with: homesickness, culture shock, foreign languages, new customs and so on.

Thirteen students participated in Ohio University's inaugural "African Culture Through the Arts" program this past summer, sponsored by the School of Music, College of Fine Arts and Office of Education Abroad.

Sarah Schaaf, a junior audio music production major from Granville, Ohio, said she is already homesick for Ghana. "I began to unknowingly change myself and discover things about myself that I hadn't known. For one, I realized that my only limitations are self-imposed."

The dancers in traditional dress before a ceremony.Just as she had expected, Schaaf learned firsthand that Africa is "more than AIDS, fighting and Safaris, and I hope we were able to help show them that America is more than rich, lazy people." Perhaps unexpectedly, Schaaf gained a break from the relentless American media presenting limited, often unattainable standards for beauty. "I've never felt more beautiful, self-confident, accepted and secure in my life than when I was in Ghana," she said.

These insights came for Schaaf while she and the others were engaged in 14-hour days packed with a curriculum of immersion into Ghana's performing and visual arts. Students learned dance from villagers as well as the National Dance Company of Ghana; constructed drums and made batiks; met top Ghanaian artists; took Ewe language classes; and took field trips and visited host families.

"I feel like I so earned my 15 credits," said Kristy Miller, a senior from Canton, Ohio. Like the other participants, Miller talked about how one of the most striking lessons learned from the trip was how differently Westerners and Africans approach art. "We're so used to, in America, 'don't break the fourth wall,'" she said, sounding like the acting major she is.

Miller's experience as a performer and her outgoing personality served her well in situations where she quickly learned there is no difference in Ghana between performer and audience. "For a white girl from Ohio to have rhythm in that setting is laughable," she said, pointing out that everyone there dances from the time they're in the womb until they're old and bent halfway over but still at it. But she joined in anyway. "In Ghana ... dancing and music is for everybody -- not like here (where) it's a pastime, a hobby."

Carly McClosky, a senior journalism major and dance minor from Dayton, Ohio, noted not only the lack of separation between performer and audience, but she also pointed to how many supposedly separate arts were often combined. "(In) some Ghanaian dances, the music tells the dancers what to do, or the dancers tell the musicians what to do. And they're wearing the traditional dress, so they're incorporating the textiles."

"It's very evident through their arts there's a huge sense of community there," McClosky continued. "All the dancing, all the drumming, if it's done in a village setting, the entire village is involved."

The American students were treated to a dose of national pride as well during their visit when the Ghana Black Stars soccer team made it into the World Cup finals. "Ghana during the World Cup was a huge experience unto itself," McClosky said. "They would win a game and you'd look outside and everyone would be celebrating together ... kids banging on their drums and dancing out in the street. A minute later you'd see an impromptu parade."

This vibrant street life, along with the warmth of the Ghanaian people and the strong bonds of community all made an impression on the American students. And because program director Paschal Yao Younge maintains strong ties to his native village of Dzodze as well as his alma maters University of Ghana and National Academy of Music, the students got a chance to see "the real Africa" in a way they couldn't on their own.

Close personal relations are evident when you walk into the office of Younge, who is an associate professor of multicultural music education. In addition to the usual artifacts of a professor's office -- books, computer, stacks of paper, framed certificates -- the space is full of drums, a piano, batiks and masks. A conversation with him is likely to be interrupted by phone calls, a surprisingly large number of them from former students.

Younge operated a similar study abroad program through West Virginia University before initiating the study abroad here. Two things drew him to Ohio University: first, his wife, Zelma Badu-Younge -- an American he met in Ghana -- was already on the dance faculty (she now works as the program's assistant director); second, Younge appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of the arts programs here.

"That's how Africans view the arts," he said. "Music isn't just drumming and singing, it's dance and other things ... we don't have a name for music as in Western cultures. For us, it's a celebration."

"Personally," according to Younge, "music is life. If music is not in your life, you're dead." He thinks summer abroad programs should be mandatory for all students before graduating. "Go and look at life from a different perspective."

Nearly a year after visiting that table at the Study Abroad Fair, Lauren Elliott couldn't agree more. "Definitely study abroad. Hands down. It doesn't matter how much it costs, it's worth every penny."

Mary Reed is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.

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Published: Oct 3, 2006 8:50:00 AM
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