Think the research paper or science project that your professor assigned is challenging?
Imagine if your homework is to change the world — or at least your corner of it.
That is the assignment given to UW-Eau Claire students and faculty by their instructor during an immersion in West Africa, which included 10 days at the Tostan Training Center in Senegal.
“A message Tostan’s founder, Molly Melching, stressed repeatedly was the power one individual can have to change their community and the world,” said Holly Hassemer, an academic adviser at UW-Eau Claire and co-leader of the immersion in Senegal.
“She pushed us to develop our own power to enact positive change in our communities,” Hassemer said. “We actually left the training with homework to spread the Tostan approach to community-led development back in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and beyond.”
The UW-Eau Claire students who immersed themselves in Senegal said they are up to the challenge.
“Since returning to the United States, I have never felt so excited and motivated to become a social worker within my own community,” said Erica Bergmann, a social work major from St. Croix Falls. “This experience has made me question what I want to do in my future career because I am so moved by the work of Tostan. I would love to work in a similar setting.”
Bergmann was among the 19 UW-Eau Claire students who traveled to Senegal in January as part of an international immersion program focused on community-led development training.
The UW-Eau Claire students included a number of social work majors, but also students studying kinesiology, elementary education and communication sciences and disorders.
“What I gained from this experience is priceless and something I will carry with me forever,” Bergmann said. “It gave me a new perspective on life that you cannot be taught by sitting in a classroom.”
During the immersion, the UW-Eau Claire team spent four days in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, where they visited the U.S. Embassy and met the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal. The embassy visit focused on the role that the United States plays in the supporting the people of Senegal, while also advancing U.S. interests.
The group also visited Goree Island before traveling to Tostan, where they spent 10 days in training.
Tostan is an organization that helps African communities identify a community vision — often related to enhancing human rights such as education or access to health care — and supports the communities as they develop leadership teams that help them realize their vision.
The UW-Eau Claire team’s training focused on integrating human rights into the process of developing a vision for a community, such as the campus community, and then ensuring that people within the community have the knowledge and skills to implement the vision, said Leah Olson-McBride, professor of social work and co-leader of the immersion.
The students on the trips were the first university students to complete the training, Olson-McBride said, noting that past trainees were primarily professionals working in international development, especially in Africa.
The UW-Eau Claire students and faculty were fortunate that Melching personally led their training, Hassemer said.
With Melching as their guide, students learned the Tostan curriculum of human rights and community-led development, but also about the personal journey of one person who has been instrumental in a social movement, Hassemer said.
Melching’s story, the students said, was a powerful reminder that every person has the ability to make change in the world.
“Molly created her own legacy and has impacted thousands of lives through her work,” Bergmann said.
Their training included visits to villages that have been transformed by the Tostan program, giving students an up-close look at the impact the program has on individuals and communities.
It also gave students an opportunity to learn from — rather than about — people whose cultures are different from their own, Olson-McBride said.
“It was incredible to go through the modules of Tostan as American students, and then see how the same concepts that we were learning about transferred into Senegalese villages,” Bergmann said.
The personal stories shared by villagers whose lives were changed because of Tostan was a highlight of the immersion program, said Larrick Potvin, a senior social work major from Brooklyn Center, Minn.
For example, one woman shared her story of traveling to India to become a solar electrical engineer, even though she could not speak or read the language in that country.
“It was eye-opening to me that she learned that through colors because there was a language barrier,” Potvin said. “I know if I was put into a place where I couldn’t read or speak the language, I would not be able to learn how to work on solar panels.”
Her story, he said, is an example of how the Senegalese people find a way forward, often by coming together to overcome the challenges they face. Their spirit of collaboration, along with their kindness and generosity, is inspiring him to think more carefully about how he lives his own life, Potvin said.
“When we give peace and show respect, then that is how you are measured, not by how much money or level of education you have,” Potvin said. “The people of Senegal have a limitless amount of love and peace in their hearts. Their culture and the way they interact with each other is so amazing. No matter the situation, they always envision how they can work together to make it better.”
For Potvin, having the opportunity to explore the culture in Senegal and interact with the Senegalese villagers was especially meaningful because of his interest in learning more about Africa than is taught in schools or portrayed in the media.
“For many African-Americans, we don’t know our heritage or where we originate from in Africa,” Potvin said. “All we learn about in schools is how slaves came from Africa. For me, to be able to travel to this specific part of the world and learn about the history and culture was the eye-opening and rewarding experience of a lifetime.”
That experience has him considering how he best can make a difference in the world after he graduates.
“I am so motivated to look into foreign social work or how I can have influence on the world as a social worker,” Potvin said. “I don’t have to be limited to working just in the United States of America; I can go anywhere and share the same amount of love and peace that I was gifted while in Senegal.”