It's back-to-school time in the Iowa State University College of Agriculture. While most students spent time working summer jobs, 135 students in the college studied abroad in 10 countries and could look back at the summer of 2004 as a life-changing experience.
One of those was Emily Nieman, a junior in agricultural education from Delhi, Iowa. She traveled to Ghana to teach middle-school agriculture classes. The six-week trip was part of an agriculture education study abroad class. Nieman was struck by the differences in culture and agricultural practices. "At times I felt like I was teaching a history class because we discussed sharecropping and tribal war as ways to obtain land. We also talked about chiefs owning the land," she said.
The Republic of Ghana is in West Africa, and is roughly 1.6 times the size of Iowa. The topography is mostly flat and dry with some areas of rainforest. In the area where Nieman stayed, the main crops are palm oil, cassava, rice, yams and plantain. The agriculture classes she taught focused on land use, rainforest use, land tenure systems and weather, plus production of the crops grown in the area.
Aside from the curriculum, the school itself presented challenges. Resources were scarce. There were three agriculture teachers who shared one textbook to teach 740 students. They made copies for themselves, then wrote notes on the board for the students to copy to their notebooks. The school building was in poor shape.
"There was a hole in the floor and I could see the class below me. The room had no electricity and we depended on light from the windows. We wrote with small slivers of chalk, which we would have thrown away in America. The chalkboard was so old the students could barely read the notes. The building reminded me of the barn where we stored hay back home," Nieman said.
Families lived in huts and used rainwater to bathe. Many children were malnourished. Yet the people were generous. Villagers regularly asked Nieman to join them for a family meal. The school children were polite and respectful. At the end of Nieman's visit, the students took up a collection to buy her a piece of kente, a type of cloth associated with the Ashanti religion.
Neiman said she learned a lot about Ghanaian agriculture and daily life and enjoyed the trip. "This experience has been truly life-changing. I would go back in a heartbeat. It was definitely worth it," she said. After graduating from Iowa State, Nieman plans to teach or join the Peace Corps for a few years before entering seminary to become a pastor or work in the mission field.
"Traveling abroad offers something no other course could ever offer. It allows students to gain experience while learning an appreciation for other cultures. Traveling abroad is more than just a resume builder - it's an opportunity to change your life," Nieman said.
(Susan Thompson is a communications specialist with the Iowa State University College of Agriculture.)