The Hidden Costs of a Priceless Experience

By Dian Ryu, CIEE Dakar: Language and Culture Program and Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship recipient

ryu¿Tink! Tink! Tink! Tink!¿  The neighbors rapidly knocked on the metal front door to let my host family know that the water truck had arrived.  My four sisters and I gathered all the buckets in the house and walked quickly out the door.  ¿What if there¿s no water left?¿  It was day six of a water shortage that would continue for weeks in Dakar, caused by damage to the main pipelines responsible for transporting water to millions of people.  As we neared the mosque, we saw chaos, as people shouted at one another to move up or get out of the way.  We waited until our turn, then my sisters each balanced about four gallons of water on their heads with ease, while I wobbled ungracefully back with a smaller bucket in my arms.  I remember feeling relieved upon returning home and dumping the water into a larger container then subsequently discontented when my sisters picked up their buckets to return to the truck.  Unfortunately, the truck was already empty by our second run.

How can I describe my four months in Dakar?  Can I summarize the gratitude I felt that day, when I realized what my family members had been doing for many days to ensure that there was enough water collected from these unreliable trucks to minimize my discomforts?  Can I put into words the shame of thinking, ¿this would never happen in America,¿ a statement that attests to the accustomed privileges of my lifestyle, and a desensitization to the greater inequalities that exist in this world?  Is it possible to paint the feelings of discomfort from the foreignness of my skin color?  Can I appropriately convey my small steps towards understanding, accepting and loving the Senegalese culture?

As an environmental science major, studying abroad in a program offering zero courses in my field may seem like an ¿academic break.¿  However, the benefits of studying abroad are almost beyond words.  I did not only study about religious societies, gender inequalities, sustainable practices, developmental hindrances and economic models, but see them actualized in the context of a different society.  One of my favorite excursions was a trip to northern Senegal, where students in my program helped plant trees for the Great Green Wall Project, a physical 4,400-mile barricade of trees to stop the spreading of the Sahara Desert.  This project showed the possibility of a partnership between 20 sub-Saharan countries, many of which people believe are regions too conflicted and overly disorganized for any sort of progress.  A project I had never heard of previously, which integrated a lesson on international partnerships and environmental stewardship.

With technological advancements and growing international partnerships, these connections between societies around the world are increasingly proliferating.  It is more important for our current and future generations, than ever before, to broaden our sphere of understanding to include the perspectives of our neighbors across the world.  Studying abroad is an invaluable, priceless experience, albeit with a price.

Many colleges today declare a commitment to creating equal opportunities for underprivileged and underrepresented students through active recruitment and provision of generous financial aid.  However, simply increasing acceptance rates of students from underprivileged backgrounds is not enough.  For even after the acceptance letter, there are handicaps for students of disadvantaged backgrounds ¿ pursuing scholarships, investing time into work-study hours, and sacrificing social and educational opportunities like studying abroad that are simply too expensive.

I was fortunate enough to receive the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship to help reduce the financial burden of going abroad, and with this assistance, I was able to have an opportunity that not only molded my college experience, but my understanding of the world.  While disparities existing in developing regions of the world, such as the lack of safe drinking water, are much more obvious, we must also realize the hidden inequalities in the American systems, and do what is possible to promote equal access to opportunities.  Only then can the gap in monetary wealth be exchanged for equality in wealth of knowledge.

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