Studying Abroad in Kenya, Hollins Students Gain Cross-Cultural Understanding and Learn the Power of Advocacy

Studying Abroad in Kenya, Hollins Students Gain Cross-Cultural Understanding and Learn the Power of Advocacy

Academics, Study Abroad

February 26, 2024

Studying Abroad in Kenya, Hollins Students Gain Cross-Cultural Understanding and Learn the Power of Advocacy Kenya J-Term Trip 2024

When Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Lindsey Breitwieser and Assistant Professor of Public Health Abubakarr Jalloh were prepping students to spend their January Short Term in Africa, they offered some helpful advice: open your minds to unprecedented learning opportunities, have fun, and leave any preconceived notions behind.

“We told them, ‘This is not Disney. This is not The Lion King. There is so much more. This is a world, a culture, a people,” Breitwieser recalled.

Breitwieser and Jalloh accompanied six undergraduates from Hollins’ gender and women’s studies (GWS) and public health programs as they took part in the university’s inaugural study abroad experience in Kenya. Developed in partnership with Nairobi’s Kenyatta University (KU), the trip was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Increase and Diversify Education Abroad for U.S. Students (IDEAS) Program.

Discussions about bringing Hollins students to East Africa began in 2021, when Isabell Kingori, Ph.D., a lecturer in environmental and occupational health at KU, spent the 2021-22 academic year at Hollins as a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence. In June 2022, Jalloh, Director of International Programs Ramona Kirsch, and then-Assistant Professor of Sociology Jennifer Turner traveled to Nairobi to finalize a Memorandum of Understanding between Hollins and KU. The agreement established an academic and experiential program to begin during the 2024 January Short Term that would expand students’ world view through the interdisciplinary lens of GWS and public health.

“One of the students on this trip had been to Mozambique, but otherwise this was the group’s first trip to the continent,” Jalloh stated. “The biggest thing I wanted to do was to foster cross-cultural understanding and help students see what health care is like in a country on the African continent. They learn in public health classes that health care systems may not be the same as ours in other parts of the world, but this experience allows them to see that firsthand. There is no one way to approach health care, and the system that we are used to in the Western world may not work in a country such as Kenya.”

Hollins students and faculty visit Amref Health Africa with KU’s Mildred Niwiri, Ph.D. (second from left), study abroad program supervisor, and Isabell Kingori, Ph.D. (second from right), who was Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Hollins in 2021-22.

Over the course of 16 days, Breitwieser, Jalloh, and the six students explored in depth how reproductive health care and justice in Kenya are affected by community, medical, and legal influences. The group studied needs, access, and practices and engaged with academics, health care professionals, and both urban and rural citizens. Site visits included the National Phytotherapeutics Research Centre at KU, which focuses on mainstreaming traditional medicine that’s scientifically based into the country’s health care system; KU’s Contraceptive and Reproductive Health Services, featuring presentations from clinicians who work with family planning, HIV/AIDS, and tracking community tuberculosis (TB) transmission; the Women’s Economic Empowerment Hub, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and a variety of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as Amref Health Africa, which provides mobile health services as well as surgical support to hospitals throughout Kenya.

Among the goals Breitwieser said she and Jalloh hoped to achieve from the trip was to “seek out students who can become the next public health experts or at least train them to see the possible career options.”

Breitwieser noted in particular that the group’s extensive investigation into the issue of gender-based violence became “an opportunity for them to confront how Kenya is working through this problem differently from the United States, but also to see there is commonality in experience and recognize that there are things we can do in the U.S. and Kenya that can be uniting as opposed to creating misconceptions. It was certainly one of the hardest things for our group to deal with, especially with the stories we heard on a daily basis.”

Jalloh agreed. “At first it was difficult to talk about these issues, but the students all said, ‘I grew from this experience, now I want to do something about this. I feel like I can advocate for myself and others.’ I think that was the big thing that came out of this trip – they can make their voices heard.”

The Hollins group toured Fort Jesus in Mombasa, a fortification built by the Portuguese in the 16th century that became one of the entry points of European colonization and trade influence in the region.

The chance to broaden her capacity for knowledge and activism was a major reason why the Kenya program appealed to Izabelle Racine ’25, a public health major. “I get an amazing education at Hollins, but there’s just something about going to a foreign country whose ways are so different from what we have here. You can’t really teach that in a classroom, and I thought that would make me a better public health professional.”

Riley Hylton ’24, also a public health major, had “always wanted to go abroad and learn about different cultures and reproductive health.” She echoed how directly observing the health care system in Kenya and meeting with people from various backgrounds was deeply impactful. “We talked to a group of moms and some of them had to walk as much as ten miles to get to the closest clinic.”

A crucial component to the trip’s success, Racine said, was building relationships. “We got to interact with so many people in various contexts and from different backgrounds,” she explained. Racine cited Mildred Nawiri, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in chemistry at KU who supervised the study abroad program. “She spent a lot of time with us and that was really valuable. We have a friend in Kenya.”

The collaboration between Hollins and KU has earned Nawiri’s praise. “The challenges and lessons learned will be insightful toward improving future programs, and I commend the entire team’s dedication and resilience,” she said. “I look forward to further study abroad programs with Hollins.”

Before traveling to Kenya, GWS major Charlie Miller ’25 had never taken a public health course at Hollins. But because of the trip, they learned that “there’s a large intersection between the two disciplines. Learning about gender-based violence and how that affects public health, for example, was really interesting and insightful to me. From here on out I won’t view gender and health as separate issues.”

After the briefing Miller and the group received about the spread of HIV and TB in Kenya and why it is such a significant issue there, Miller was inspired to take an epidemiology course taught by Jalloh at Hollins this semester.

Miller’s immersion in Kenya’s health care system turned out to be greater than they anticipated. At one point during the trip, they fell ill and spent a day undergoing observation and treatment at a large university hospital in Nairobi. “I was very, very lucky to get the care I got, and I’m very appreciative of that and for Dr. B. [Breitwieser] staying with me the entire time.”

On safari at Maasai Mara National Reserve, the group rode a matatu, a bus/van featuring a ceiling that lifts to allow standing.

While much of their visit to Kenya meant serious study and much to process, there was time for the students to relax and enjoy the country. The coastal city of Mombasa offered a welcome respite with its gorgeous beaches and striking old town. But for Racine, Hylton, and Miller, their favorite experience was going on safari. Traveling in a van specially fitted for passengers to stand and enjoy a 360-degree, panoramic view of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, “we were seeing things that we would have only ever seen on National Geographic,” Racine said. “None of us had ever imagined being there. It was so unreal to see this in real life.”

“It was so beautiful,” Hylton recalled. “Virtually the whole time I couldn’t stay seated. I was getting tired toward the end, but I didn’t want to fall asleep. I wanted to see everything.”

Miller described the park as “the most lush, green place I had ever seen. I loved seeing all the animals – lions, elephants, and so many others.”

All three students emphasized that the Kenya trip will be informing their future educational and career plans. Racine intends to attend graduate school, complete a master’s degree in social work and possibly public health, and serve as a social worker in either a medical or academic setting. The journey piqued Hylton’s interest in reproductive health and gender and women’s health, and after discussions with some Hollins alumnae, she’s considering working with Planned Parenthood. Miller is seeking ways in which they can help address issues related to gender and race-based violence.

Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Lindsey Breitwieser encounters a giant tortoise at Mombasa’s Haller Park.

Breitwieser and Jalloh plan on coordinating a Kenya trip every other January Short Term and maintaining the small group dynamic of six to ten students. They are also enthusiastic about the possibilities for enhancing the abroad experience there. “Amref told us, ‘We have internship opportunities, we have things people can do, we would love for somebody to come and work with us’,” Breitwieser said. “And at Kenyatta, they are really excited about our students coming back and creating a long-term relationship. Jalloh and I are hoping to figure out a sustainable project going forward, and to that end, we visited the Kenyatta University Primary School. We’re just tossing out ideas at this point, but we envision the school as a place where we might offer our time and energy.”

Also eager for the Hollins/KU relationship to continue to blossom is Isabell Kingori. “I was delighted by the cultural competency displayed by the Hollins students and faculty, and my prayer is to continue interacting with the Hollins community. Hollins will always be a part of me.”

Jalloh called the Hollins/KU program a “life-changing opportunity. We’re living in a global village, and Africa is one of the most misunderstood places in the world, especially among Western societies. Getting that opportunity for cross-cultural understanding, one that changes the participant’s life forever but also creates opportunities for cooperation – in the end, that’s going to make our world a better place. I’m glad we were able to play a small part in that larger picture.”

Throughout their trip, the Hollins students who traveled to Kenya kept a journal of their experiences. Visit the Hollins Goes to Kenya blog to read their insights and reflections. This map highlights many of the places the group visited.

All photos courtesy of Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Lindsey Breitwieser.