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Program in International Studies
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Students Strenghthen Skills and Communities in Togo, West Africa
By Donna Emert
Education and empathy combined are a force to be reckoned with. That’s the message international studies student Tyler Cook has taken from his experience abroad, and the friendships he made in his travels.
Cook is one of twelve University of Idaho students who worked with the NGO, Entreprises Territoires et Développement, for ten weeks this summer. Together they aimed to empower the people of Togo, West Africa.
Students lived, worked and learned in the town of Notsé, in the border city of Kpalimé, and finally in the capital city of Lomé.
Participants included ten international studies students, one environmental science student and a pre-med/biochemistry student. The multifaceted study abroad experience in Togo aims strengthen students’ international development skills. The experience was designed and is directed by Kodjotse “Ro” Afatchao, associate director of the University’s Martin Institute, whose hometown is Notsé.
“The NGO we were working with contracted with the government of Togo to teach and implement decentralization by giving more autonomy to communities,” said Afatchao. “The NGO focuses on the environment and agriculture, working with farmers’ groups and other community groups to help them develop greater bargaining powers in order to better navigate the market in Togo.”
In addition to their work with the NGO, while in Notsé, students worked in the public hospital and volunteered one day a week at the Catholic orphanage. There they worked with more than 100 children, many who were orphaned by the AIDS pandemic.
At all three locations, Afatchao and the students offered specific feedback and advice on the conception of local development projects, including strategies for working with communities. They provided workshops, and facilitated dialogue, addressing international development issues.
The students’ full cultural immersion included a summer-long test drive of their French language skills - and an opportunity for them to learn firsthand how international organizations work with communities, local governments, NGOs and other organizations.
In the process, they gained insights into the complexities of the local, regional and international politics, policies, and history that can hinder progress, or shape it.
Over time, those forces also shape attitudes, says Afatchao.
“The University of Idaho is service oriented. Folks don’t always have the same attitude in Togo,” he said. “One thing I am hoping we did was just start something there, build an awareness that you can’t just expect everything from the government. You have to have some duties in return. One thing our students did was to model responsible, engaged citizenship.”
In turn, their hosts modeled generosity of spirit.
“The community embraced our students,” said Afatchao. “The impact this experience had on our students, no words can describe. What they experienced in Togo, the friends they made, the culture they lived in, even the taste of the fruits, was so different. The most important thing is that they returned home with a better understanding of international development. I believe they will be impacted positively for the rest of their lives."
Tyler Cook, a leader of the Togo student contingent, previously spent three weeks in Ghana, Africa through the winter Alternative Service Break (ASB), an opportunity provided by the Associated Students of University of Idaho Center for Volunteerism and Social Action.
“Studying abroad is the experience of a lifetime,” says Cook. “It allows you to just immerse yourself in a culture that isn’t yours, and apply what you learn to better your life and other people’s lives. The trip to Togo was for the whole summer, so I got to see what an NGO can do over a longer period of time, and how they balance what they do in the field and what they do in the office.”
The economic and social issues students tackled are complex, and daunting. Empathy and friendships developed on-the-ground provide strong motivation for creating lasting change.
“You don’t want to just be some traveler, or tourist,” says Cook. “You want to make it personal. When you leave, you want to have friends you can go back to and visit.”
“When you arrive, there is huge culture shock. I think the hardest thing to do is to accept the amount of poverty and the harsh conditions. But being a minority for once gives you a different, and I think, a good perspective. When you come home, there’s reverse culture shock: Everyone here takes everything for granted. When you come back, you just want to give everything away.”
International Studies students are required to spend ten weeks abroad. Cook doesn’t see that as a burden.
“It’s amazing. You get a sense of what’s out there in the world,” he said. “It opens your eyes, and opens you up to new career paths.”
Study abroad has shown him a world of opportunity for applying his international development skills. He and the other University of Idaho students are looking for lasting, sustainable solutions to economic, social, environmental and agricultural challenges. Providing anything less is just not something you do to a friend, Cook said.
“I want to make a lasting impact. You don’t want what you’re doing to fall apart after you leave.”