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I’ll be back

My last few days at Starfish were some of the most memorable. We finished up my music class and the exam tutoring of the students. I was so proud of everything they had learned in 2 weeks, and how they all wanted to keep learning more. I left my ukulele to the students in order for them to continue playing and for any future volunteers that could continue my work.

With finishing my classes came the hardest part of my internship… presenting about my experience. I completed my write up on lesson plans and activities, but the last part of the presentation was how this experience had affected me. How do I put into words all the things I wanted to say about the community that had become a second home to me?

I personally hate public speaking and presenting anything always makes me nervous. So naturally I was a little scared going into my presenting room in front of all the mentors and Aunty Yassin. But as soon as I got in there, it felt so natural. I knew all the people listening cared about me and genuinely wanted to know how my experience had been. It wasn’t like in some class where I had to present on a topic I didn’t like, to a class full of students who weren’t listening, and in front of a teacher who was grading me. This was just me talking about something I was so passionate about, to a group of individuals who actually wanted to know how I felt. It was the best presentation of my life.

July 2nd, this past Saturday, was my birthday. It was the first birthday I spent in a completely different country away from home. But I didn’t feel at all alone. At midnight, all the mentors and volunteers came charging into my room with chocolate bread from my favorite bakery and singing happy birthday. They went in a circle and talked about their favorite trait of mine, and I have never felt such unconditional love before. The next day, after dinner they got me a beautiful cake and sang to me with all the Starfish students. I can’t lie, I shed a couple of tears while looking at all their happy and loving faces. The whole Starfish community made me feel so at home that I didn’t even miss being home for my birthday. I can’t thank them enough for everything they did for me.

This entire experience has definitely had a lasting impact on me as a person. I didn’t see it at first, but by the end of my internship, I could see the full effects. The main goal of Starfish is girls’ education and empowerment. This goes not only for the students, but also the mentors and volunteers. I have become a much more confident person, whether it’s in public speaking or just in my goals in life. These girls have so many dreams and are so committed to service, that it made me re-evaluate my goals. I have so many opportunities to go out and change the world, and the Starfish students have really inspired me to embrace these opportunities. Another thing I’ve realized is how important the relationships and connections you have are. When I’m old and thinking back on life, I’m not going to care about the  money I made or the material things I have. I’m going to remember all the people I met and how they have had an impact on me. Africa is such a different culture, based around people and being part of a community. This culture really helped me understand that people should come first, no matter what color or country they are from. Every experience I had, from the students greeting me with hugs the first day I was there to having a conversation with our bus driver at 2 am about his life goals, showed me the oneness of humanity. Even being halfway across the world, people are still people and they aren’t as different as you would think. I want to thank Starfish and everyone that supported me through this journey, but whatever words I say will never be enough.

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Becoming Gambian

One of the best and worst things about living abroad is that you don’t have choice about experiencing the actual culture. If you are taking a class trip or just sight seeing through a country, you don’t experience how people actually live there. But when you live in one place and interact with locals, you can’t escape the cultural experience. And Gambian culture is definitely something that I have learned to love. 

Two weekends ago, I was blessed to have the opportunity to live with one of my student’s family for a day. Her name was Awa Ceesay Sr, and she is in the 11th grade. Two Saturday’s ago, Rene (a mentor) and I took a taxi to meet her by her house. She greeted me with a huge hug, which immediately put me at ease. Whatever we did that day, I knew she would be there to help me through it. After meeting her mom, sister and baby cousin, we first went to the market to buy all the ingredients to make dinner with. We bought all fresh chicken, vegetables, and spices to make our Fufu with. Fufu is literally just fried chicken and chips. Not very Gambian, but at least it was an easy meal for me to make. Since all of us were fasting, we were making the meal to break the fast with later that evening. I learned how to cut raw chicken, make homemade fries and peel a bunch of different vegetables. I did more cooking in one day than I’ve probably ever done in my life (sorry mom). Once the food was ready, we swept the front porch and cleaned the dishes. I was exhausted, but Awa’s day was only halfway over. It was 3 pm, and we all headed back to Starfish for the typical Saturday classes. I was surprised by how much Awa does in a day, and then still comes to Starfish with all the energy and enthusiasm to learn. I loved the whole experience, and now kind of feel like I have a sister from another country.

This past Friday was another major cultural event. Almost all of the volunteers had now arrived, so we had a total of 13 at the time. One more was arriving Friday night, so she would join us later in the night. Friday was our naming ceremony!!!!!! Aunty Yassin and the mentors picked out our first names. My name is Amie. One of the Starfish girls, Amie S, is very good at soccer, and I’m very close with one of my students named Amie Nata, so they figured Amie was a good name for me. My last name I got to pick, and I picked Ceesay in honor of my time spent with Awa Ceesay. So Friday night we all dressed in traditional outfits made by the tailor, and drove over to Lamin Lodge for the ceremony. Many of the students walked over to see the ceremony or sing in it, and it was great to have the whole Starfish community there. After climbing onto a boat in our tight skirts and getting some of our hair cut off with a razor, our naming ceremony was completed when the Griat (holy man running the ceremony) announced our names to the crowd. It was awesome to hear the students and everyone chanting your new name, and really embracing you as a (kind of) Gambian. Normally this ceremony is done for babies when they are named.

As of yesterday, I had another experience that really helped me understand life in The Gambia. All the volunteers here did “Day in the Life of a Mentor”. So now we were paired with a mentor and assigned to do everything they were supposed to do in a day. My mentor was Awa, who came to work here after she graduated high school. After cleaning the breakfast dishes and the conference room where we eat, we went on a trip to Banjul, the capital. We took a van from there to Awa’s house in a village nearby. We went to the well in a nearby compound to get 5 containers of water, one which I unsuccessfully carried on my head. Awa easily carried it without using her hands, but I couldn’t balance it at all. From her house we walked back 45 minutes in the heat to Starfish, a walk she does every morning. As tired as we were, the day was only half over. I then taught my normal class, attended a meeting, wrote the daily report for everything that had happened for everyone there, and attended another mentor’s meeting after dinner about upcoming events. By 11 pm, we finally stopped our work and were able to go back to the dorms. Awa does this and probably more everyday, and it really taught me how much dedication to your work is extremely important in life. The mentors work so hard and sacrifice so much for the students, and it’s inspiring to see how much they really do care.

After all these experiences, I feel like I have had the privilege of being a part of a second culture so vastly different than my own. With only 4 days left here, I plan on trying to learn as much more about the culture and make more memories with the people I have come to know and love. 


Exploring!!!

My third week here is coming to a close. It’s been an extremely busy week, with many new volunteers arriving and switching around the schedule. The Starfish students are in the middle of exams for their schools, so our main focus has been helping them prepare for their exams. My coping skills class is over, so for the first few days I helped teach 7th grade math to some of the students who were struggling the most. It’s been a long time since I learned about angles and perimeter/area! 

Starting on Wednesday, I began teaching my music class. I began with the basics, so what the notes are and the beginning of reading music. But what the girls and mentors are most excited about is my ukulele. For starters, most of them have never heard the word ukulele and laugh everytime I say it. But they all wanted to learn what it is and how to play it. I wish I had more instruments in order to teach, but I’ll have to make due with my single ukulele. 

On Wednesday, I taught them how to hold the ukulele and what each string was. I had them each practice playing a little, which they all enjoyed and kept wanting to hold it. It’s hard to teach 7 students with only one ukulele when they all want to hold and play it all the time. Eventually I got my instrument back, and could play a song for them. Since most of the songs I know are too hard to be learned in a week, I played my ukulele as they sang. I taught them the words to “Can’t help falling in love”, the Twenty-One Pilots version. They loved singing along, and kept asking to sing it again. All my students are so passionate about music, it brings out my passion. 

On Thursday we went back over the notes. Learning the notes is essential to eventually being able to read music, so I really want to focus on that at the beginning of each class. They begged to sing “Can’t help falling in love” again, so we sang it quite a few more times. It is one of my favorites to play, so I was just as happy as they were. Then we went into learning some basic chords, so eventually the girls can learn to play a full song. It’s exciting to see so many students, mentors and volunteers who want to learn. I hope to pass on as much as I can, so when I’m gone everyone can continue learning. 

This week we also started our site visits! We don’t leave the Starfish compound much during the week because we’re so busy with classes and preparations, but this week was dedicated to going out as much as possible. On Monday we visited the Kachikally Crocodile Pond and the monkey park. Crocodiles are a sacred animal here in The Gambia, so we got to visit a pond dedicated to protecting them, and even got to touch one. From there we drove to the monkey park. It’s honestly just a forest where a bunch of monkeys live, and if you come in with peanuts you won’t find it hard to find any monkeys. They swarm to the peanuts, and grab as many as they can. I even had one stick it’s arms into my pockets in search of any more peanuts. 

On Tuesday we went to the Barkama craft market to look for anything we would like to buy. They sold a bunch of wood carvings, instruments and clothing. I found an instrument called the Kora, which is basically the Gambian version of a ukulele. I was tempted to buy it, but it was so expensive and I didn’t know when I would have time to learn how to play it. We will be going back to the craft market sometime, and I know I will once again have to exercise some willpower to not give in and buy it. 

On Wednesday we went to a snake farm about an hour from here. We were shown a bunch of species of snakes, turtles, crabs and lizards. I held a few of the smaller snakes, and even had a python sit on my shoulders. Definitely not an experience I would like to have in the wild, but it was cool to see how huge the python really was. On Thursday we went on a boat trip through the rivers where the Gambians fish. We sailed to a river bank where we caught some crabs. The riverbank was all mud, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my feet are still dirty for the next week. 

Overall the past week has been extremely busy. I have been able to pursue my passion of music by teaching the girls, and am able to continue exploring The Gambia while learning about their culture. I can’t believe I only have one week left, and I’m not at all ready to go home.

Lessons Learned

As week 2 of my internship comes to a close, I think it’s time for a little reflection on what I’ve experienced during my stay. With only two weeks left in The Gambia, I don’t think I’m ready to say goodbye to all the people and places that have changed my life. 

This past week my coping skills class worked on a few different things. Monday we focused on what attitude was, and why it was important to keep a positive attitude. I think this lesson is the most important one I have given, because having a positive attitude can really change your life. If you focus on all the good things that will come out of a situation rather than all the possible bad things that could go wrong, you’re much more likely to really experience life and be happy about it. I found that I also needed to learn this lesson. Even with all the opportunities I have in life, I often focus on the negative. It was an awesome experience to be able to grow alongside my students.

On Tuesday we did a 4 questions exercise, which basically helps you identify what your problem is and why it’s so important to you. It shows you why you care about whatever the situation is, and helps you take steps towards what you really want. The girls had a hard time understanding some of the questions, so it was a learning experience for me to try to break down the exercise into simpler terms. Teaching in general has helped me become more flexible. No matter what your lesson plan is, you’re probably going to have to change it mid lesson to fit for your students. This lesson was a clear example of having to think quickly and come up with different ways of teaching.

On Wednesday, we continued with the 4 Question exercise and also added on a deep breathing exercise. It was shocking to me that deep breathing was actually a valid and helpful coping skill. I had never used it before, and I think my students really enjoyed learning it. One of the funny things I’ve learned through my whole class is that as much as I thought I knew about coping skills, my students seem to be teaching me more than I am teaching them. They go through so many problems and stress, yet are positive and continue to be excited about learning and life everyday. They have given me inspiration to look at my life a different way.

Finally yesterday, we worked on setting goals. Yesterday was the last official class because today will be  presentations. I figured that a good final lesson for them to have was something they could use in their future. I had them each write a “life list”- a list of all the goals they wanted to accomplish, places they wanted to go, and things they wanted to do. Listening to their plans, I was inspired by how much they want to achieve. Not only for themselves, but also for the community and the world. Every girl put down that she wanted to give back to her community and help other girls that were struggling. They wanted to dedicate their lives to improving life for others, and I think that is the lesson I will take away most from this trip. No matter how much you have, material things or possessions, nothing will ever be as rewarding as passionately doing your best to serve others. I’ve experienced it in my two weeks of teaching, and how proud I am of how much my students have learned and how excited they are to learn more.

This internship has taught me just as much, if not exponentially more, than I will ever have time to teach the students. With my two weeks left, I hope to give as much as possible of myself, and experience more of how this beautiful culture and people live. 

“I’m halfway thereeee”

I am now officially over halfway through my time in The Gambia, and the feeling is bittersweet. This past week has gone by in blur. I was homesick at the beginning of the week when I was dropped off, but since then I haven’t had time to really think about missing home. This past Saturday, the students were challenged to present the material they were learning in class in a creative way. Whichever class had the most knowledgable and creative program would end up winning. My class wasn’t technically competing because we only had a few classes, but we still presented.

Over the past week, my class went over what coping skills were, types of stress that the girls experience, and general coping skills to deal with these stresses. The girls learned a lot, and were eager to show the rest of Starfish what they had learned. Our presentation consisted of a skit about coping skills and a poem recited by one of my students about dealing with fear. 

The skit started with two of the girls getting in a “fight” before their class started and one of them really insulting the other. This was the problem that they were going to deal with in the skit. Then the “teacher” walked in and presented to the girls about stress and ways to deal with it. After the class was over, the girl that had been hurt confronted the girl she argued with, and they ended up resolving the conflict. It was a short skit, but we only had Thursday and Friday to prepare for it. 

One of students, Yadicone Jassey, present her poem entitled “I am never upset for the Reason I think”. It talked about how people normally think they are upset about the circumstances or situations they are in, or because of other people. But really, people are upset because of the way they personally react to situations. Any reason for being upset comes from inside, and that you have a choice to choose love instead of being upset. It was a deep poem for such a young girl to have written, and it really illustrated what I was trying to teach them.

Another major event that started last week was the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. For anyone who doesn’t know what that is, it consists of fasting  from water and food whenever the sun is up, for the whole month of June. This effects my classes because all of my afternoon students complain of being tired and hungry by the time later afternoon comes around. I have never fasted before in my life, so I decided to try fasting in order to see what my students are going through. Not eating food for a whole day isn’t as hard as you would think, but the real problem is no water. No water for a whole 14 hours, while its a sweltering 90 degrees outside. I don’t know if I will be able to last the whole month, but we’ll find out!

First Day of Classes

So let me tell you, I am not a teacher. I have never taught a class, and honestly never really worked with kids before. But let me tell you what I am doing here at Starfish… I’m teaching. 

Yesterday marked my first day of official classes. For the first two weeks of my internship I will be teaching a class on coping skills. I was honestly more nervous than I have ever been in my life for my first class to start. What if I made a fool out of myself in front of the kids? What if I only talked for half the class then didn’t know what to do for the rest of it? All these thoughts raced through my head yesterday before I started my morning class. 

But, like most things in life that we worry about, all the bad outcomes I imagined in my head didn’t happen. My morning class has only 3 students because the class is extremely individualized. These three students showed up at the library probably as nervous as I was because they didn’t know what the class was about. But as soon as I introduced myself and had them pronounce their names for me a few times, the atmosphere started to lighten up. 

We started off informally, and I asked them questions about what they already knew and what they wanted to learn from the class. Then we jumped right in to one of my favorite exercises called The Five Senses Exercise. You think about a happy memory and use all your senses (see, hear, taste, touch, smell) to describe the memory in detail. This way you really experience the memory, and it can bring back happy feelings if you are upset. Next they identified what stress is and the types of stress they have in their lives. They listed off so many for such young girls, it made me realize that I don’t truly experience much stress in my life. 

Both of my classes did this yesterday. This morning the classes were having presentations, and one of my girls was so excited that she wanted to share what we were learning even though we only had one class. It’s inspiring just being here and witnessing how motivated they are to learn. I’m excited for what my class will accomplish in the next two weeks!

New Beginnings

Today marked the end of our college trip to The Gambia, and the beginning of my internship with Starfish International. The last three weeks have flown by, and I have seen and experienced more than I could have imagined. I grew closer to my classmates, I made new friendships amoung the Gambians, and I was exposed to new situations that have taught me many things about the world.

One of the main differences between Gambian and American culture is how open the people. In America, people walk down the street and mind their own business. Here in The Gambia I feel like I can’t walk 15 feet without someone saying hello and asking me how I was doing. It’s a refreshing change that everyone is so open to talking and really getting to know you. Another difference is how crazy people are driving here. People swerve in and out, pass each other on normal roads, and honk at everything from a chicken crossing the road to a person walking too close on the side. It makes New York City look calm. I haven’t been hit by a car while walking.. yet. 

As much as my class trip was fun, I felt like I was experiencing Africa from the safety of our little Juniata class. It was comforting to see familiar faces wherever I was, but to truly experience how life is in The Gambia I need to be here alone. And so here I am, the last of our class still here. After a tearful goodbye to my classmates at 3 am as they drove off to the airport, I was dropped off at my internship. Completely alone. The next 4 weeks will be quite the adventure, and I can’t wait to see what is ahead of me.

Countdown

Less than 3 days until I will be on a different continent.

Less than 3 days until I will be an ocean away from everyone and everywhere I know.

Less than 3 days until I embark on what may be one of the most life-changing experiences I have ever had.

In 3 days I will be traveling to The Gambia, a small country on the western coast of Africa, for a three week class trip through Juniata College. But unlike my 19 other classmates who will then return to the comfort of America, I will be staying an extra month. In that month, I will be working with Starfish International in what will likely turn out to be one of the most memorable summers of my life.

Starfish International is a non-profit organization that aims at providing additional education for Gambian girls, with the end goal of empowering these girls to become assets for their communities. It was founded by Yassin Sarr, who grew up in The Gambia but came to America for higher education. After eventually obtaining a Ph.d, she returned to Africa to start this organization. She believes that the best way to help Gambian society is through education.

My internship is tailored to what I am most passionate about. I am on the soccer team at Juniata, and three of my teammates are coming on the trip too. We will hopefully be running a soccer clinic for the girls before the class leaves, with supplies donated by both Juniata College Women’s Soccer and my Parkland High School coach, Al Haddad. I am majoring in psychology, so another important part of my internship will be working with the girls on coping skills. I don’t know exactly what I will be doing on a daily basis, but I’m super excited to see what lies ahead this summer.

I want to thank the Juniata Alumni for providing money for the Super Internship fund that made it possible for me to have this life-changing experience. Without their help, I would not have been able to do this internship.