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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Alex Samson: Reflections on a Semester Abroad in Kenya

University of Hartford student Alex Samson (Health Sciences, '13) recently returned from a semester abroad in Kenya through the SIT program "Health & Community Development." Less than a week after arriving in the USA, Alex sat down with staff from the Study Abroad Office to reflect on his experiences abroad.  Below, through images, text and video clips, Alex shares his reflections on everything from living with a host family to learning Swahili and how he has been transformed by the experience.  Read on to learn about Alex's incredible journey to Kenya and back!

How did you choose Kenya as a destination? 
Originally I was nervous to apply to a ‘non-traditional’ location so I chose South Africa. Fortunately for me, the South Africa program was full and I was referred to Kenya. Although I had some reservations, it ended up being the greatest experience for me.

What did you most enjoy about your semester in Kenya?
I enjoyed the amount of traveling I was able to do through Kenya as well as Uganda. It helped me understand the variety of cultures that exist within East Africa.

Your program (SIT) is well-known for its hands-on/experiential approach to education. Can you give us a few examples of the “hands-on” experiences you had?
As part of my program, we visited dozens of NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations); we also visited slums, clinics, support centers for those afflicted with HIV/AIDs, etc.  We were able to learn firsthand about what the communities desperately needed and what was being done to assist them. We were not sheltered from the harsh conditions that so many Kenyans live in, such as their small shack homes (if they even had one), or the the abandonment of their families due to the stigma of HIV/AIDS. Although there were so many of these harsh realities that we saw, we also visited several facilities that had made great strides in their work and it was truly inspiring to see the outcome of their hard work.

To watch a video clip of Alex talking about hands-on learning, click here:

Please tell us a little about your program and how it fit into the Health Sciences curriculum at UHart.
While abroad I took classes in health, development, research methods and Swahili.  I also conducted a month-long Independent Research Project on Maasai Circumcision Groups. I was very fortunate in that all of these courses transferred over for credit towards my graduation requirements.

To watch a video clip of Alex talking about health concerns & health education within the context of his study abroad experience in Kenya, click here: 

To watch a video clip of Alex talking about people-to-people interactions, click here: 

How immersed in the culture were you?  What were some aspects of the program that facilitated immersion?
I lived 90% of my semester as a typical, middle-class Kenyan resident. I lived with three separate homestay families in three different locations throughout the country over the course of the semester. I know what it is like to live in a developing country with limited access to running water, toilets, and electricity.  

What was it like to learn Swahili? What were a few common words/expressions in Swahili that you used in everyday life?
To watch a video clip of Alex talking about learning Swahili and the friendships formed through language, click here:

Tell us about your family life.  What was it like living with a local host family?
My main family was based out of Nairobi. I had three sisters (aged 18, 17, and 11), a brother (13), as well as the house help (20), and a mom and dad. My dad was the headmaster of the school district, my mom was a volunteer primary school teacher in the slums, and my siblings were all students. My family was amazing and more than I could have asked for. They helped me adapt and grow during my time in Kenya and I couldn’t be happier to have met them.

With my Muslim family in Shirazi Village (on the coast of Kenya) I had four sisters aged 18, 16, 12, and 8, as well as a mom and dad. My dad spoke a good amount of English but was only home on the weekends because he worked hours away during the week. My mom spoke no English but was extremely friendly and helpful. All of my sisters spoke English, even though they were slightly embarrassed to do so with me. 

My last family was of the Maasai Tribe; I stayed with them to conduct research for my final project. I lived in a tin shack with a mom, dad, two brothers, 9 and 11, and two sisters, 1 and 6. This was the most difficult host family to adjust to because the Maasai culture was completely different from the Kenyan culture which I had become accustomed to.

After living with three completely different families in various walks of life, I feel I’ve grown and know so much more than when I left the States. Through the good times and the bad times, everything had a lesson to be learned in it. This helped me grow personally and I’m very satisfied with my overall homestay experiences.

To watch a video clip of Alex talking about his experience living with local host families, click here:

How was your daily life in Kenya different from your daily life in the USA?
In Kenya, I didn’t take a single day for granted. Everything was an adventure since it was all new for me. I tried my best to always keep busy and get to see as much as possible. I ventured out with friends or alone, made new friends, tried all different kinds of Swahili foods and socialized with the locals.

Looking back, what were some challenges you faced abroad?  What helped you overcome them?
Making new friends and missing the ones I left in the States was extremely hard during times, especially during my 21st birthday. Getting closer with my study abroad cohort and making friends with locals really helped me cope though. Also, adjusting to drinking immense amounts of hot tea and eating a very high starch/carb diet was difficult, physically, on my stomach.

People often say that Americans don’t take time to appreciate the 'simple pleasures' in life.  Can you think of a few examples of the 'simple pleasures' you enjoyed in Kenya?
Americans are on a very scheduled and exact time schedule, unlike Kenyans who are on a “time doesn’t exist” schedule. This was very frustrating to adjust to, but ended up relieving a lot of stress. It was nice to be able to wake up and not have a million things running through my mind that I needed to get done. I basically went with the flow and when things arose to occupy me, I went with it. This could be visiting a national park, going out to eat, visiting friends who work in markets, or just walking around.

To watch a video clip of Alex talking about his own simple pleasures, click here:

How has the experience abroad changed you?
I’m now very understanding of people’s circumstances and feel I judge a lot less than previously. I often get frustrated with people who are wasteful or unappreciative of the luxuries they have. I’m also finding myself to be much more independent and fearless about the judgment of others. I feel this experience has broadened my mind and helped me grow as an individual. 

What are some skills you developed while abroad?
I think I’ve really gained the skills of independence and self-reliance. I feel very comfortable with doing things on my own or for myself. I’ve also become quite skillful in conservation and understanding small things I can do in order to be less wasteful.

To watch a video clip of Alex talking about how the experience transformed him and the skills he pick up along the way, click here:

What do you appreciate the most from your international experience?
I appreciate every ounce of knowledge I gained while abroad and the hands-on experience I participated in.

What is something about the experience that you never want to forget?
I never want to forget the people I met there, especially the locals. Some of my best friends were vendors in the market or random people on the streets who I’ll never be able to communicate with again since they are too poor to afford internet. Kenyans are genuinely nice people who don’t expect you to give them money or provide for them. They would rather earn their money and this is what made me less cautious when becoming friends with strangers who I know were impoverished. I’ll never forget the late nights I spent with my friends in the market and the conversations we had regarding life and happiness.

To watch a video clip of Alex talking about what he most appreciates and never wants to forget, click here:

What is it like being back in the USA?  Are there any aspects of being back that are challenging you?  What could help you through this?
Reverse culture shock is very real and very unpleasant. I didn’t expect only three and a half months away could affect me this much reentering my own culture. Coming home and seeing how nice everything is (buildings, roads, cars, clothes, etc…) was very overwhelming and caused me a lot of anxiety. Reuniting with friends also proved to be difficult because I was stepping back into their lives and we just weren’t on the same pages at first. It took some getting used to and much time in my home to get back to being comfortable in the States.

What did you learn from the experience? Is there anything you learned that you want to bring back with you to the USA an incorporate into your daily life?
I learned that things aren’t always perfect and that goes for life as well. Things don’t always go as planned and there’s no reason to stress out about it. Things seem to always work out in the end, so just sit back and enjoy the ride.

What would you want to say to UHA students who are thinking about going abroad?
DO IT! You’ll regret not doing it more than you can imagine!

Any additional thoughts or highlights you would like to share? 
The thought of leaving behind your comfortable life in the United States is scary, it really is, but once you get out into the world and see different walks of life, you’ll learn that you’re capable of so much. You can do it. All you need is that initial push.

To hear Alex's advice to future study abroad students at UHart, click here:

Interested to learn more about study abroad?  Contact Susan Carey, Assistant Director for Study Abroad:

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