My name is Beth and I am humbled and thrilled about the opportunity to learn and grow with you all this semester. I write to you from New Jersey, which is where I was born and raised and where the time of covid has brought be back to after over a decade away.
This will be my first semester as an instructor with Dragons, although I come with a background in student education and have been guiding programming and educational experiences for adolescents, educators and young adults for the past 6 years. These opportunities have taken me throughout the Continental United States, South and Southeast Asia, the Balkan region, and the South Pacific, but I have not yet had an opportunity to lead students through the part of the world which has been the most formative for me and left the deepest impact on my soul and being.
I first came to West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer right after I finished undergrad. I had spent summers as a student intern working both domestically and internationally in various healthcare settings but my study abroad experience in Cape Town and summer in Tanzania working with populations who had been deeply affected by both the HIV/AIDS epidemic and systemic oppression and historic marginalization catalyzed my desire to learn and serve. I received my Peace Corps assignment as a health volunteer in The Gambia and spent two and a half years in a small Mandinka and Jahanka community in the Northeast corner of the country. I feel head over heels in love with the intricate relationships between subsistence and the land, community and family, lineage and history and language and storytelling. My work in the Peace Corps was mostly smaller scale, focusing on health education, leadership opportunities for young women from rural communities and maternal health work. In my time in the Peace Corps, the warmth, kindness and hospitality of my host community never ceased to astound me. I continue to carry this experience as the way in which I think about development, colonization and raw compassion and kindness in humanity.
After my time in the Peace Corps, I continued to work both in student education and global health, moving back and forth between the two seasonally and between graduate school work. I found a niche in global health, which guided my own path in both student education and other work. I went back to The Gambia during my time as a graduate student to study the impact of solar lighting on birth workers and inequity that occurs in off grid health facilities. I had quite a different experience than I did throughout my Peace Corps time working directly with the ministry of health and living in the capital but having the opportunity to apply my graduate school knowledge to a place I adore was really special.
While I spent quite a bit of time in Senegal, as I lived less than 10 miles from the border, I am beyond excited to be back in this context, to brush up on my Wolof, Pulaar and French, and eat my favorite Senegalese food: Yassa, Maffe, Petit Pois and Cafe Touba, sit under the Bantaba, sip attaya and take it all in once again.
Every time I meet a new group of students, I find myself enamored with each of the narratives that form the “why” we have all arrived at this place together and the things that we are each the most excited for and the most tentative about. Watching students and my fellow teammates learn and grow from each other continues to be the reason I keep coming back to this work.
To finish this introduction, I offer some words from one of my favorite books turned into films: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, that I try to embody each time I travel: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”
As you physically pack and mentally prepare for this journey, I offer each of you warmth. I cannot wait to meet each of you, hear your stories and join you in this experience.
On a final logistical note, I will be with you all for the first half of the semester, roughly until the end of October, at which time Claire Bennett will take my place on the instructor team for the 2nd half of the program.