Senegal: Learning from abridged experiences studying abroad
Sophia Filipe, an LSA senior and international studies major, spent two months studying international development and French language in Dakar, Senegal, before being recalled to the United States due to the coronavirus pandemic this March.
During the time she spent there, Filipe advanced her knowledge of her major primarily through a course in international economic development, as well as the development of her fluency in a foreign language as she had conversations entirely in French with her host family.
“My fluency has drastically increased by habitually needing to speak to have the important conversations I needed to have to understand Senegal through the people,” she said. “My host family solely spoke French, and I was also challenged to practice my new Wolof (the local language) with them.”
For Filipe, the premature end of her program in Senegal did not limit the knowledge or experiences that she was able to have in the country. Well-versed in travel, Filipe says that a one-week vacation simply cannot do a country, its culture or its history justice. Her two-month stay was a formative experience that allowed her to view aspects of Sengalese society that she wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
“To sum up all of the wonderful, goofy, embarrassing, nerve-wracking and confusing moments I experienced in my two months, Senegal gave me a plethora of ‘firsts,'” she said. “I had my first networking experience in a second language with my host sister’s colleagues, giving my confidence in pursuing difficult conversations en francais. It was the first time that I felt frustrated by my identity as a woman, as the Western liberties I’ve been habituated to did not travel with me.
“After bargaining in Wolof at the market, I had a beautiful celebration-style dress made to attend my first Muslim wedding ceremony. Finally, I had the confusing experience of explaining cultural appropriation to my host sister—as she braided my hair—who laughed at the concept.”
As worries about the coronavirus in the U.S. began to escalate in mid-March, Senegal still felt far removed from the sickness. It wasn’t until two weeks later that Senegal saw its first case from a French national—it was then that Filipe realized the virus was more than just a sensationalized news story.
“U-M kept sending us vague emails until eventually the clarifying one spelling out ‘You need to come home’ came in,” she said. “I cried—like many did … I would’ve traveled to different villages facilitating conversation on women’s rights and empowerment in French and Wolof in varying villages in Senegal. I don’t think I’ll be able to have that sort of immersive experience in my future, so my devastation was in the loss of that great experiential learning opportunity.
“To cope, I went shopping for souvenirs in the markets and packed for our 4-day beach trip to Saly for spring break. My host family threw me a little goodbye lunch where I helped prep my favorite meal—yassa poulet—my grandma made her special bissap juice, we danced with bowls of fruit, and my host mother and uncle gave beautiful speeches that brought me to tears.”
Making arrangements for the flight home was challenging, as Filipe faced multiple flight cancellations amid President Trump’s European travel ban into the U.S. Flight costs rose quickly, and dealing with this uncertainty on top of the frustration and sadness of a premature end to the program wasn’t easy for many.
“It was a terribly long journey—about 30 hours with the layover, but I met a cool humanitarian worker from Benin along the way who made a great COVID travel buddy,” she said. “But gosh, it was an adventure full of chaos, cancellations and chance.
“Senegal once again reminded me of the beauties and complexities that our world is comprised of, and my two-month perspective will go to further develop my life-plan in how I will participate in the comprisal.”