In the weeks leading up to her semester abroad, College of Charleston senior business administration major and Honors College student Michelle Smith maintained daily runs to ready herself for intense physical labor. She dyed her blonde hair brown and bought a fake wedding band to prevent attracting too much attention overseas.
Shortly before Smith left for a semester in Ghana, West Africa, she wrote a blog post saying, “I am terrified. Not only am I leaving behind my family of friends in Charleston, where I go to school, I am also leaving behind nearly every western comfort imaginable.”
She and fellow College senior Chance Cox, a hospitality and tourism management major, have been in Ghana since January 10, 2014 and will return to the U.S. May 1. The service-abroad experience is part of an international business course called “International Social Enterprise and Development: Project Okurase” [Ah-CROSS-ee]. Eighteen international business and public health students will travel to Okurase this summer to participate.
The goals of the course are for students to develop a cross-cultural understanding of living and working in unfamiliar conditions, to increase students’ understanding of economic and social problems in other world cultures and to introduce students to international social enterprise and development.
While in Ghana, the students are completing coursework, and compiling a video about their time abroad. Smith is contributing to her bachelor’s essay, which focuses on how international service learning affects the College’s School of Business students who participate. She will fulfill an Honors College requirement through her regular blog posts and a 10-page essay detailing her experience. Cox will finish additional assignments to fulfill his hospitality and tourism management internship requirement.
The two split time between the village of Okurase, where they work for Project Okurase, and the village of Kokrobite, where they work at a seaside hotel called Asaasi Yaa.
Project Okurase is a non-governmental organization that empowers people in rural communities in Ghana through education, skills training and healthcare. Tuesday through Thursday Smith and Cox work on the organization’s financial records, teach computer literacy classes to villagers, work with a group of women on a small business venture and help to build sustainable toilet systems, all with the hopes of leaving a self-sustaining community in place when they return to the U.S.
Medical University of South Carolina faculty member Cindy Swenson founded Project Okurase. On December 30, 2013, she traveled to Ghana with College of Charleston Professor Rene Mueller to ensure the students’ accommodations, and professional and educational roles were manageable and safe. While there, Swenson and Mueller helped unveil the “Okurase Safe Water System” clean water pump.
The safe water system was funded in part by former College of Charleston professor Linda Plunkett, and by Possibilities Without Borders, a College-affiliated organization that raises funds for student service projects overseas. Previously, Possibilities Without Borders has funded programs that sent College students including Smith to Cameroon, and to Kenya.
Check In Time
“Our daily responsibilities at the Asaasi Yaa hotel are varied,” Smith said. “The majority of my day is spent on a computer coordinating communications with our supervisors back home, conducting research for the business plan we want to have constructed by the time we leave, and catering to guests when we have them.”
Smith and Cox’s work at Asaasi Yaa is bigger than their day-to-day responsibilities imply – Friday through Monday, the two work to create a self-sustaining business plan that can help the hotel to prosper long after they return to the U.S. In the meantime, they are also taking on every operational task that pops up so they can develop hands-on managerial experience in a hospitality setting.
Limited Wi-Fi and frequent power outages make many tasks difficult to complete. “When the power goes out at Asaasi Yaa, I typically take a 30-minute tro tro, or van, ride into the next town to an internet café where I can work,” Smith said.
Planes, Trains and Tro Tros
To compound their sense of foreignism, the Okurase village the students commute to and from is one of many Okurase villages in Ghana. The two must be cautious when boarding the tro tro that will take them three hours from Kokrobite to Okurase.
In a blog post from March 3 Smith wrote, “I got lost by myself last week.” After two hours of sitting in a tro tro heading to Okurase, Smith realized none of the passing scenery looked familiar.
Despite the potential for uneasiness, Smith’s account of being alone and lost in Ghana details a funny accident and a van full of 30 sympathetic Ghanaians.
“I tapped the shoulder of the man in front of me, ‘Are we close to Okurase?’
“‘No, Okurase is a big town, it shares a border with Koforudia.’ My heart sank. I had managed to go 2 hours in the completely wrong direction. My Okurase was near a town called Adeiso, hours away from Koforudia.
“As my fellow tro tro passengers learned just how lost I was (there were about 30 of us on the van), they all lamented with me, ‘Ohhhh! Obroni [white person] meant Adeiso Okurase, ohhh noooo!’ I actually think they may have been more upset about it than I was. They made sure the tro tro stopped right then and there and directed me towards the nearest taxi station.”
She summarizes in a January 29 blog post, “It’s not bad to be a minority in a country where everyone is so incredibly friendly.”
When Cox returns from Ghana in mid-April he will have two weeks before commencement, and Smith will have two semesters of school to complete before her graduation.
While Smith’s career path after graduation remains a mystery – she’s interested in the hospitality, communications, consulting, and community service and development industries – one thing is certain.
“I will absolutely return to Ghana,” she said. “It is simply in my blood.”
All photos courtesy of Smith’s blog. To see specific blog posts referenced in this story, follow these links: