UAPB students study abroad in East Africa

University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff faculty and students engage with residents in a children's home at Kenya. Students also led educational games and activities. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff faculty and students engage with residents in a children's home at Kenya. Students also led educational games and activities. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)

Students and faculty of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Department of Human Sciences conducted a study abroad program in the East African country of Kenya. The program focused on community service and experiential learning.

Student participants included Havilland Ford, Trenay Hayes and Justin Thomasson, seniors; and David Opiri, a sophomore. They were joined by Jai Lewis, a junior at Tennessee State University, who has previously participated in UAPB's education abroad programming.

Faculty participants included Jane Opiri, assistant professor of merchandising, textiles and design; Suzzette Goldmon, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management; and Karleah Harris, assistant professor of human development and family studies.

"Thomasson, an art major at UAPB, was so enthralled upon learning about this program, that he raised his own funds to participate, including applying for and receiving a prestigious Gilman International Scholarship award," said Pamela Moore, associate dean for global engagement for the Office of International Programs and Studies.

Opiri, who is originally from Kenya, organized the study abroad program in conjunction with her alma mater, Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya.

"The idea of this program was to allow our students to compare the American and Kenyan cultures and develop their professional skills," Opiri said. "Over the course of the program, through volunteer work, they had the opportunity to enhance their teamwork and empathetic skills. They returned from the trip with a greater cultural intelligence and understanding of responsible citizenship."

Goldmon said the program was educational and inspirational for all those involved.

"From service learning, interacting with children and experiencing the hospitality to immersing ourselves into the Kenyan culture and languages, the moments were rewarding, sobering, informative, enlightening and priceless," she said. "I encourage others to experience and create similar opportunities for our UAPB students and others as well."

Harris credits the faculty and students at Kenyatta University for going out of their way to make sure the American program participants felt at home.

"Our UAPB students were able to immerse themselves in an international experience and learn about new cultures, foods, languages and places," she said. "The students achieved invaluable knowledge and skills and were very creative with our global partners."


After their arrival in Kenya, the program participants had time to tour Kenyatta University and interact with their Kenyan peers from the Department of Music and Dance. Then, the students got to work volunteering at a home for orphan and vulnerable children in Kayole, Kenya. They spent the day interacting with the children and leading educational games and activities.

Ford said seeing the conditions at the children's home was a sobering experience. She was surprised that the children's bedrooms and school hallways lacked electricity and other amenities that would be considered essential in the U.S.

"It was nice to see generosity and kindness among young people and how they didn't let what they didn't have affect their learning," she said. "For example, during the session, Justin Thomasson led a sketching seminar. There were students who didn't have an eraser or even a pencil with an eraser end, but their classmates were very happy to share. Every student was so joyful."


Several program activities were directly related to the participants' educational tracks at UAPB. For example, they received first-hand training in merchandising, textiles and design during a tour of the Kitui County Textile Center (KICOTEC). During a meeting with a rising Kenyan fashion entrepreneur, they learned the ins and outs of fashion design and even worked with a tailor to design their own garments. And before embarking on a safari tour, they were taught about tourism management in Kenya.

"I enjoyed touring KICOTEC, the garment manufacturing facility," Ford said. "Currently, they are only producing uniforms for the Kenyan government, but they have the licensing to expand internationally, plus the ability and means to produce a range of clothing. I found this to be a great opportunity for UAPB to take advantage of. I hope we can work out a contract for school merch in the bookstore or at least T-shirts or sweaters for faculty and students of the UAPB merchandising, textiles and design program."

At the Kazuri Beads Factory in Nairobi, Kenya, students had the chance to meet women who make elaborate handmade beads and other crafts from clay. They went on a tour of the factory and learned about the process of molding, firing and decorating the jewelry.

"The origin, values, craftsmanship and creativity were so inspiring," Ford said. "I'm always seeking out Black-owned businesses, and I love uniquely crafted quality pieces. It felt good to purchase jewelry for myself and others."


During a meeting with Ryan Scott, foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the UAPB cohort learned about how the Foreign Agricultural Service helps developing countries improve their agricultural systems and build their trade capacity.

"While meeting with Mr. Scott, I learned that Kenya, a third world country, exports more goods to the U.S. than the U.S. -- one of the wealthiest countries in the world – exports to Kenya," Ford said.

The students were very interested in hearing about Scott's career and the prospect of pursuing similar career opportunities, Opiri said.

"He took the time to ask them about their studies and career plans," she said. "It was also a fun coincidence that Mr. Ryan's wife happened to be a fashion designer since several of our students are interested in that field."

The cultural portion of the program included a trip to Fort Jesus on Mombasa Island. The fortress, which was built in the late 1500s by the Portuguese, played a significant part in the transatlantic slave trade.

"Fort Jesus was a place where slaves were once held and traded," Ford said. "In the moment I felt grateful to experience what I'd read, watched and learned about for years. The familiar saying 'I'm my ancestors' wildest dreams' kept replaying in my mind."

They also visited Bomas of Kenya, a village that allows visitors to tour traditional Kenyan homesteads. There, they learned about the country's 42 ethnic groups and watched traditional dances representing the country's different cultures.

The students also had a chance to learn about the importance of traditional dance back at Kenyatta University.

"Dancing is a part of African, African American or Black culture," Ford said. "The student dancers were so passionate and energized showcasing their dances and culture. I'm usually apprehensive to participate in things like this, but their energy and passion moved me to join them."

Opiri said other highlights of the program included attending a church service with peers at Kenyatta University and being hosted for dinner by a local family.

"The students enjoyed comparing church services and traditions between the U.S. and Kenya with their Kenyan counterparts," Opiri said. "They also had a great time at the dinner we were invited to. The family who had us over went to great lengths to show us a good time. Their dining room looked like the dining room of a five-star hotel. They prepared a huge dinner, which everyone enjoyed."

Ford encourages all African American students to consider traveling to some part of Africa someday.

"My first piece of advice would be to research enough to understand the culture but not too much to the point that you're creating preconceptions and expectations," she said. "Secondly, and most importantly, I'd recommend being open to everything including experiences, food and culture. Lastly, I'd recommend taking notes, jotting down thoughts during the day and journaling in the morning as a precursor to the day, in the evening as a recap, or both. It can be refreshing and beneficial to reflect."

Thomasson also had advice for others.

"I would recommend every student participate in the study abroad program," Thomasson said. "It was a very fun, educational, intricate learning experience. I met a lot of great people and learned a lot about Kenya's culture. This was the experience of a lifetime and left a great first impression for my first time traveling out of the country. I intend on going back to Kenya to further my connections there while enjoying the country. This experience will forever be a great memory."

According to Moore, the program was supported by a grant from the 1890 Center of Excellence for International Engagement and Development, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

"This particular grant was designed to enable the three academic departments of the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences to 'jump-start' signature study abroad programs for students in their degree programs. The idea is for our school and university to produce globally competitive graduates," Moore said.

Will Hehemann is an extension specialist -- communications at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.

  photo  Assistant professor Suzzette Goldmon of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff interacts with residents of a children's home at Kenya. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)
  photo  University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff participants toured Fort Jesus on Mombasa Island where slaves were locked up before shipment during the slave trade. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)