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A Whirlwind of Activity Connects Student’s Academics and Community Engagement

A Whirlwind of Activity Connects Student’s Academics and Community Engagement November 15, 2012
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Beloit College student Megan Slavish left Wisconsin in the dead of winter and went halfway around the world to Botswana, where the sun was shining and the temperature soared into the 90’s.

For the next four months, she studied hard to learn a new language, took classes, wrote academic papers and made presentations, conducted an independent project, and volunteered at an orphanage and a clinic.

Megan Slavish at Kgale HillMegan Slavish atop Kgale Hill, overlooking Gaborone, Botswana.

She also made lots of friends, saw thousands of animals on a safari, and even – it was sunny and warm, remember – got a chance to hang out on a beach.

In short, Slavish’s experience on the ACM Botswana: University Immersion in Southern Africa program was whirlwind of activity, and she took every opportunity to weave together her academic interests and her enthusiasm for meeting new people and engaging in a different culture.

Based in the capital city of Gaborone, students on the program take elective courses and a class in Setswana – the country’s national language – at the University of Botswana (UB). They also conduct independent study projects with guidance from the program director, who is a visiting faculty member from an ACM college, and are encouraged to volunteer with local organizations.

Presenting project posterPresenting results of independent projects at the Botswana Program poster session on the UB campus.

Photo courtesy of Firas Suqui

“I was excited by the layout of the program,” said Slavish. “It was a good balance between classes at the university and classes taught by the ACM program director, a balance between planned activities and time to be on your own and independent.”

A health and society major, Slavish was interested in non-communicable diseases – such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes – which are overshadowed by the high rates of HIV/AIDS infection in Botswana. Her project examined the “nutrition transition,” a phenomenon in which rapid urbanization goes hand in hand with changes in diet and lifestyle.

“So much attention is focused on AIDS and infectious diseases, but she was always keen to point out that non-infectious diseases were an issue,” said Bill Moseley, a professor of geography at Macalester College who served as the spring 2012 program director. “Botswana’s urbanizing at a really fast rate, people’s diets and physical activity patterns are changing, and it’s creating a lot of diseases that we’re familiar with in the U.S. but are somewhat new [to other parts of the world].”

On safari in northern BotswanaOn safari in northern Botswana during one of the program trips.

Photo courtesy of Bill Moseley

Slavish interviewed UB students, asking them about their lifestyles in both Gaborone and their hometowns, as well as residents of Mochudi, a town that the ACM students visited for a four-day field trip and home stay experience. She also talked to researchers at the university who have studied the topic.

The interviews focused on nutrition, which is one of the risk factors for non-communicable diseases, along with smoking and lack of physical activity. “I asked them about patterns of food consumption, like what they ate, how much, how often,” she said. “I found that the traditional meals that they eat [in rural areas] are a lot healthier than what’s present in urban areas – the cookies and the fried bread that’s very popular and fries.”

Her results suggested that a nutrition transition is, indeed, taking place in Botswana. Along with her fellow ACM students, Slavish presented her findings at a poster session on the UB campus.

Moseley lauded Slavish and her project, both for its content and for the wide range of interviews she conducted. “It was rigorous academically, but involved a lot of engagement with the community,” he noted. “I think it was a really great example of using one’s research to get off campus and talk to different types of people.”

Children at SOS VillageChildren at SOS Village showing their clean hands after a lesson on hand washing.

Slavish also got involved in community activities by volunteering with two organizations. Her Setswana teacher mentioned in class that students have volunteered at SOS Village, a school and home for children who have been abandoned or whose parents have died from HIV/AIDS. It was a good fit with Slavish’s interest in improving her language skills and, as a classroom assistant, teaching a little bit of English and creating short lessons about health and nutrition.

“We did a lot of hands-on lessons with things like hand washing,” she said. “Every time I was there and the kids came back from the playground, I would take a bucket and a cup and the teacher would wash each one of their hands.” Soon the teacher was continuing the hand washing on days when Slavish wasn’t there.

In addition, Slavish organized a clothing drive among the international students at UB to benefit SOS Village and lined up a Beloit Enhancement Grant from her college to help the school stock up on some basic first aid supplies, soap, and classroom materials for the children.

On the volleyball courtOn the volleyball court.

In her other volunteer activity, Slavish was a research assistant at a clinic run by the Botswana-UPenn Partnership. The organization has been using an effective “see and treat” program in which women from throughout the Gaborone area are screened for cervical cancer and can receive basic treatment during the same visit.

Throughout the semester, Slavish met a lot of people through her roommate Grace, a law student, and made acquaintances in her classes and at the university cafeteria. Soon after arriving at UB, she followed the advice of one of her professors at Beloit and joined the volleyball team, a sport she plays back home. “People are obviously intrigued by you because you look different from them, but playing volleyball with 15 local girls and 15 local guys really helped,” she said.

Saying goodbye to GraceSaying goodbye to Grace at the airport.

Program field trips included travel to Johannesburg, South Africa, and to the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve, and Chobe National Park in northern Botswana. Along with friends, Slavish took a side trip to see Victoria Falls, as well as a trip to visit Swaziland and Mozambique.

“I loved the time I spent in Botswana and the people I met and would really love to go back,” said Slavish. “It definitely broadens my perspective on culture and international research and learning from people who are different from me.”

“This was my experience, and I think a lot of things occurred because I actively pursued them,” she said. “Study abroad is what you put into it – what you put into it is what you get out.”

Except as noted, all photos are courtesy of Megan Slavish.


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