Main Image

A Cultural Connection

The Alabama in Ghana program opens students' eyes to the proud traditions and customs of a country that has come into its own.

By Richard LeComte

In June 2009, Lauren Masters found herself standing before a bunch of eager faces in a bare-bones classroom in Sunyani, the capital city of Ghana’s Brong Ahafo region. She was teaching a class of teenagers about President Obama, who was soon to visit the West African nation, but she was learning a lot, too.

“The students are so smart, and they have such a drive to learn,” says Masters, a UA junior from Haleyville, Ala. “Everyone has access to schooling, and most of them want to come to America or study somewhere abroad.” To many, that kind of international experience is essential for a well-rounded education. Just ask Dr. Seth Appiah-Opoku, the professor who made it possible for a group of UA undergraduates.

“Most of our students hadn’t had the opportunity to interact with people in different cultures, aside from what they’ve found here on the campus,” says Appiah-Opoku, associate professor of geography at UA and director of the Alabama in Ghana program, now in its sixth year. “This course is structured in such a way that students will become familiar with other cultures.”

Ghana, where Appiah-Opoku was born and raised, has blossomed from a former European colony into a robust democracy, he says. He notes that the last four changes in government have come through the ballot box. “It’s a very vibrant nation,” he says. “It has freedom of speech, and the press is free. People get their information right away.”

Although it’s a developed country with thriving urban areas, Ghana’s pace of life is unhurried—a valuable example for students who are used to America’s much faster tempo, says Appiah-Opoku.

“Ghanaians walk slowly,” he says. “They prepare food slowly. Students learn a lot from that. It’s less stressful when you take your time.”

Appiah-Opoku uses his extensive connections in the country to find educational experiences that fit students’ interests. For example, Masters, an education major, and some of her peers got a taste of how the school system operates. Another student landed in a government planning office. Appiah-Opoku, a former fellow in UA’s service learning program, finds this kind of hands-on experience key to the Alabama in Ghana program.

“In the introductory profile for students, they have to say why they’re taking the course, what they hope to gain out of it and also the service learning program they want to engage in,” he says. “So when I get this information, I know where to place them.”

The students also absorbed a great deal about Ghana through their travels, which included visits to a gold mine, a monkey sanctuary and a national park for a walking safari. Appiah-Opoku says the students were impressed with the Ghanian respect for nature, and Masters was delighted with the safari.

“We saw all kinds of antelopes—bushbucks and waterbucks—and warthogs were everywhere, as well as baboons and monkeys,” she says. “We also got to see three elephants. It was amazing to be so close to them.”

Appiah-Opoku adds that the nation’s citizens pride themselves on their hospitality. The students got to meet his mother and sister during the trip and also had dinner with the governor of the Brong Ahafo region, Appiah-Opoku’s school friend. “We had a private dining room in our hotel, and he sat down with us,” Masters says. “After dinner, he allowed us to follow his car back to his official mansion, and we got to drive around on his grounds.”

But the highlight of the trip remains the exposure the students had to the culture, people and environment of Ghana.

“I love teaching, and I love doing this,” Appiah-Opoku says. “In my own small way, I’m trying to help students get connected to the outside world. You can’t live in a bubble and be a global scholar. That’s the way I see it.”