Five Cornell students will be spending the summer in Tanoso, Ghana through a service-learning program with the nonprofit Voices of African Mothers in the hopes of establishing a “long-lasting legacy of empowerment, education and equality in Ghana and beyond,” according to Blake Brown ’17, program facilitator and former participant.
This four-year Cornell partnership with Voices of African Mothers will allow students to engage firsthand with an organization that emphasizes the transformative power of women and children’s education in African nations, Brown explained.
“After this impactful service-learning experience, the Cornell volunteers will be agents of change in their own communities, with a renewed commitment and an insightful understanding of the vital work that VAM and its partners are doing in Ghana and beyond,” Brown said.
According to Brown, the Cornell Voices of African Mothers partnership was started by Sam Ritholtz ’14 and Ritholtz’s advisor, Prof. N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba, Africana studies.
This year, after an intensive selection process with a record number of applications, five students of diverse backgrounds and fields of study were chosen based on academic merit, extracurricular involvement and interest in VAM’s work in Ghana, Brown said. Each student expressed unique, personal and empowering goals for the program.
“As an immigrant from West Africa … I want to go back to where I originally started from and use what I have learned so far to uplift students in Africa, build unbreakable bonds with them and show them that a dream is not just something in your head, it is a reality that is yet to come,” said Clinton Ikioda ’19, one of the selected participants.
Kierra Grayson ’18 added that her motivation for involvement in the program stemmed from her desire to “gain a much more accurate perspective on the breadth of certain issues by talking to someone who is living through them on the daily.”
Likewise, participant Matt Jirsa ’19 recognized the innate responsibility Cornell students bear in coming to Ghana as outsiders.
“Coming from a privileged background, I do not want my role as a volunteer to shift into one of a ‘white savior’ or as a ‘voluntourist,’” Jirsa said. “I am not going to Ghana to impose my own culture on its people, but [to] use the strengths of collaboration between our cultures to institute realistic and Ghanaian inspired change.”
Prior to their departure, co-facilitators Brown and Ali Peterson ’17, with the guidance of Assié-Lumumba, will help this year’s cohort to gain a “profound sensitivity and understanding of Ghanaian culture [and history],” Brown said.
Once in Ghana, the student experiences will be varied and immersive, Brown added.
“During the eight-week service-learning experience, Cornell students will volunteer at a local school and clinic and have the unique opportunity to immerse themselves in Ghanaian culture by visiting various historical sites, learning about the indigenous people and forming authentic relationships with community partners of VAM,” Brown said.
Nevertheless, participant Tamzen Naegle ’18 acknowledged the challenges present in navigating different conceptions of appropriate treatment of and rights for women in Ghana.
“I expect to feel disheartened by the inequalities present in Ghana, as I am a feminist and have been raised to promote human rights for everyone regardless of status or background,” Naegle said. “By practicing cultural respect [as I will be a foreigner] I hope to adhere to the customs of Tanoso yet also introduce my own views on women’s rights and the desired treatment for girls everywhere.”