RMU Students Use Summer To Travel the World

Moon Township, Pa. - Robert Morris University is giving the term "summer vacation" a whole new meaning.

Shortly after commencement, a group of RMU students traveled to The Gambia as part of a communications course, Communications and Society in The Gambia. On June 28, Jim Vincent led 16 students to Ireland, where they currently are studying Irish literature at Griffith College in Dublin.

Approximately 7 percent of RMU undergraduate students participate in some kind of study abroad experience during their collegiate career, more than twice the national average. Nursing Professor Carl Ross recently led a group of undergraduate and graduate nursing students on a twice-yearly trip to Nicaragua, where the students provide medical services to needy families. (For more on RMU's work in Nicaragua, see the Fall 2007 Foundations magazine.)

"I'm encouraging my students to think of themselves as citizens of the planet Earth and not simply residents of Allegheny County and Beaver County," said Vincent, an associate professor of English studies.

Eight students made the journey to The Gambia, a small nation on the West African coast. The trip was the first for RMU to Africa, and it was led by Michael DiLauro, director of RMU's Academic Media Center.

"It was really wonderful, especially for me, because I had never led a group of students on a trip overseas. It was wonderful to watch students mature in a matter of weeks," said DiLauro.

Christopher Hutter and Stephanie Rhodes walk with children in the village of Bakau.

Also making the journey was Sue Jamison, wife of RMU Provost David Jamison, whose daughter, Denise Touray, a study abroad consultant, lives in The Gambia. Touray arranged all the group's activities.

"One of the most lasting and rewarding experiences of our trip was that we made good friends everywhere we went. The Gambians are a truly friendly group of people who love to hear about the US and love to answer questions about their lives in The Gambia," said Sue Jamison.

"Our students were wonderful. They were accepting, adaptable, and respectful, and they maintained their positive attitudes through some pretty challenging situations we encountered. I was so proud of how they conducted themselves at all times," said Jamison.

The group traveled to Gambia on May 12, and they stayed at the Bakau Guest House outside the capital city of Banjul.

"It was beautiful where we stayed. We had a view of the ocean, so I remember waking up hearing the waves crashing against the shore and going to bed hearing those sounds as well," said RMU graduate student Aviance Taylor.

"Below us was a fish market so when we got up in the morning we saw the hustle and bustle of the men catching fish and getting their boats and nets ready," said Taylor, who is earning a master's degree in organizational studies.

The Gambia course was developed and taught at RMU by Jim Seguin, director of the university's Center for Documentary Production and Study, originally as a documentary film course. But the course attracted such a wide range of students that Seguin allowed the students to complete a project of their choosing exploring a particular aspect of Gambian society.

Nathan Johnston, a social sciences major, decided to study drumming, a cornerstone of culture in The Gambia.

"With Western music drums are just the backbone and the beat of music but in most of Africa and in The Gambia drums are the rhythm, the beat, the solo – the whole ensemble," said Johnston, who will be a sophomore this fall.

Johnston found The Gambia to be much more modernized than he expected.

"Africa is not given as much credit as it deserves. Where we were, we walked down the street and there was an Internet café. There were a few restaurants. There was a supermarket across the street," said Johnston.

The students had to learn to navigate some of the complexities of life in The Gambia. Power outages were a regular occurrence. Students had to sleep beneath mosquito netting, even indoors. They had to negotiate with hard-nosed street vendors and deal with aggressive "bumsters" – people who try to convince tourists to hire them as interpreters or tour guides. Nonetheless, the Gambians made the students feel at ease, said Taylor.

"I was surprised how welcoming everybody was, how easy it was to get around the city," said Taylor, who works at RMU as an area coordinator in Residence Life.

Taylor's project examined cultural identify, and her research focused on Gambia's role in the African slave trade. The group visited Juffureh, the town made famous by the late Alex Haley's novel "Roots", in which Haley traced his ancestors from Africa to the United States. "I had deep emotional responses to my experiences there," said Taylor.

Taylor traveled to Ireland last year as a graduate assistant when Vincent took students there as part of a photography course.

"The trip to Dublin was a wonderful opportunity. The photography course was a unique way to learn about Irish culture and heritage. We met many amazing people at Griffith College that helped us to really feel at home and gain an appreciation for all the city had to offer," said Taylor.

This year, Vincent's students have a choice of studying Celtic mythology and literature or modern Irish literature – in particular James Joyce and William Butler Yeats. The students will hear lectures in the morning then explore Ireland's cultural amenities the rest of the day, including the National Gallery and Kilmainham Gaol, a notorious Irish jail that is now a museum.

"I want my students to share my love of Ireland, which is an exceptional country," said Vincent.

Released: 7/10/2008