I write with many thanks and a full heart of gratitude to the Myers Family and the Binghamton University Office of International Programs.
When I initially spotted the flyer describing the Malawi, Africa study abroad program, I immediately knew I wanted this once in a lifetime opportunity to come to fruition. As a single mother recently reintegrated into graduate school, funding was a potentially serious barrier. After attending the informational meeting, I committed myself to trying. Simply, if the trip was not meant to be, at least I would know I gave my full effort.
I never previously studied abroad, but I always dreamed of visiting Africa. The promised safari at the Majete Wildlife Reserve would be a solid check off the proverbial bucket list. I focused all my energy into applying to this program so that I might see elephants in their natural habitat.
The study abroad became a reality after I was granted the Myers Family Scholarship. Combined with financial aid and an internship stipend, I could afford the trip! This particular program is an asset-based community development project to promote social-emotional wellbeing for youth. As a social work student, the opportunity was far too incredible to miss.
Before leaving, I imagined accomplishing great work. Preparatory classes allowed our team to meet, and through fundraising, we devised a plan to take some of the older children from the Malawi Children’s Mission on field trips into Blantyre. These children live rurally, and our hopes were that the experience of traveling into the city would contextualize their dreams. Verbally encouraging them to stay in school and work towards contributing to their community’s development is quite different than showing them the opportunities available to them if they do.
The biggest surprise I had while studying abroad was the love and sense of family I developed for so many people; adults and children alike. While Majete was certainly incredible, the safari did not end up the pinnacle of the trip. Interacting directly within the culture and working with the children and the instructors far outweighed the tourism element.
The biggest challenge I faced was twofold: Saying goodbye to my daughter when I left home, and saying goodbye to Malawi when I returned. The most rewarding piece; however, was also linked to this challenge. I demonstrated to my daughter the ability to achieve dreams with determination and I realized the importance of maintaining contact and relationships with the people of Malawi I came to care so much about. Additionally, I’ve gained a new perspective on the value of money: What it cannot buy.
Personally and academically, several goals were achieved during this study abroad. I am a better person, mother, child, friend, student, and eventually, social worker because of this chance. I no longer imagine global citizenship—something of great interest to me—I can see it. We are global citizens. Malawi taught me where the work needs doing, and it’s right here in my own community, starting with me. International social work is no longer just a thought bubble; it’s contextualized. So while this program began intending to contextualize the dreams of rural Malawian children, ironically, the same occurred for me.
Without hesitation, I would encourage other students from all disciplines to study abroad in Malawi. This learning experience was life-changing for me. All the initial fears I had of traveling to a foreign country are replaced with amazing memories and the courage to reach for the stars.
Bridgette Hathaway, a Social Work graduate student who studied abroad in Blantyre, Malawi in summer 2016