Study-abroad course to Benin, Paris fills quickly

When developing SUNY Oswego’s first short study-abroad foray into Africa, curriculum and instruction faculty members Marcia Burrell and Barb Garii hoped they could convince at least eight students to join. Instead, they reached the maximum of 15—with a waiting list.

They were also impressed with what attracted students to EDU 301/501 “Schooling, Pedagogy and Social Justice in Paris/Benin.” “When we first started talking about the class, we thought the draw would be Paris,” Garii recalled. “We’ve learned the draw is Benin.”

The course builds on the School of Education’s Project CLIMB (Collaborative Link for Instructor Mentoring in Benin) partnership, which evolved from Professor Alfred Frederick’s research as a Fulbright Lecturer and Fulbright Visiting Specialist in Benin. Frederick “has been phenomenal with his expertise, his help and his knowledge,” Garii said.

Burrell and Garii worked with Joshua McKeown in the Office of International Education and Programs to craft a hands-on experience comparing education in the U.S., France and Benin. They structured an intellectual issues course, hoping to draw education majors as well as students in the College of Arts and Sciences and School of Business.

The course immediately appealed to junior global and international studies major Jason DeMauro. “Because Benin is a developing country, I was very interested in how they use education to address labor, gender and other issues,” he said. “How do they address globalization and how that’s affecting their decisions to make themselves more attractive to investors or building a more attractive labor force?”

Such questions of education, culture, economics and geopolitics are hot discussion topics in the course, which first met Oct. 28 and combines classroom time with online discussions through Angel. The class will leave Jan. 5 for a week in Paris, followed by a week in Benin.

Students will teach American English to a range of classes in Versailles, France, and gain classroom experience in both public and international private schools in Benin. They will also work with Peace Corps volunteers in Benin and learn more about issues developing nations face.

Senior business administration major Yves-Laure Medidor sees parallels between Benin and her home country of Haiti, where those who can afford private schools take this advantage over underfunded public schools. “The public schools are run by the government, and if it’s not a good government, teachers don’t get paid,” Medidor explained. She was first attracted to the course from a cultural standpoint, but has found the educational component increasingly interesting.

With Oswego’s input, Benin is engaging in massive education reforms, modernizing from a country where 80 percent of teachers were untrained. The new course joins an emerging field of solutions-based study abroad, McKeown noted.

“Oswego has identified solutions as one of its five strategic directions,” McKeown said. “We want our students not only to learn about the world, but to do what we can to expose students to some of the critically important global challenges and forces, as well as to do what we can to learn about ways to make changes and contribute to solutions to these problems on a global scale.”

Students appear unfazed that this will be no tourist jaunt. “I wanted to gain firsthand knowledge from their perspective,” adolescence education master’s student Matt Williams. “I’m a firm believer that if you have an opportunity to travel and experience something different from your day-to-day life, you should. We’re going to carry this experience with us the rest of our lives.”

Burrell previously visited Benin for three weeks and was amazed how, despite being a developing country, “people would give you the shirt off their backs” and remained upbeat in the face of what Westerners would consider challenging conditions.

Participating students plan to speak during Quest or College Hour in the spring. “I’d be happy to share my experience, maybe create that spark in somebody else,” DeMauro said.

“We can hopefully show the campus community this was an incredible, rewarding experience that can be continued on a deeper level,” Williams added.

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(Posted: Nov 14, 2007)