“What can you do with a degree in French?” It’s a question that has been in the back of my head since I first proudly declared a double major in English and French. About a year ago, however, I was offered an opportunity to study abroad for one month in Africa, where French is spoken as the official language of over twenty countries. Learning another language, I quickly realized, enables me to explore cultures vastly different from my own and would soon give me an invaluable life experience.
But before any of that happened, there was a lot of work for me to do right here at home. I applied with SUNY Geneseo, my university, for the month-long program that would take place in Dakar, Senegal this summer. Senegal is right on the coastal ‘curve’ of West Africa, and is considered something of a success story as far as developing countries are concerned. I finished my applications, got accepted, and was very grateful to receive a scholarship to help my parents pay for the program fee.
While still at school, the professor chaperoning the trip and teaching the class (Francophone Civilizations of West Africa – a 4-credit course taught entirely in French) held a few orientations. I spent a lot of time reading over the booklets and materials I had received at those orientations as I tried to figure out exactly what I had signed myself up for. Those meetings also introduced me to the five dynamic, adventurous young ladies who would accompany me on this journey: Lily, Alice, Erin, Kisha, and Awa. But before I knew it, school was over, and I had two weeks before I took off for a continent I had never set foot on.
So what, exactly, did I do to prepare? Of course, there were moments of blind panic (Africa?! What were you thinking, Christine?), moments of disbelief (This cannot seriously be four days away already), and very brief moments of peace (Might as well eat as many Twinkies as I can before I leave, because I’m not getting any there.) But most of all, I kept myself busy. I read my materials and learned whatever I could about Senegal. Mom took me out on numerous shopping trips as my list of things to bring grew shorter and shorter. I definitely confess to pampering myself before I left, as I knew that Senegal was not exactly going to be a tropical getaway, but I also used those couple of weeks to square away summer commitments, see my friends once before I left, and pack pack pack pack pack!
On the technical side of things, I did have to take care of a few formalities. Whenever you travel to a foreign country, it’s a good idea to check the CDC (Center for Disease Control) website to see if they recommend any medical measures or have a safety warning. In my case, I needed to get three vaccinations – yellow fever, Hepatitis A, and tetanus – and start myself on two rounds of pills – malaria and typhoid. Having all those antibodies raging in my body while my family and I ran last-minute errands left me feeling more than a little drained. I also needed to make sure my passport was up to date, call the credit card company to figure out if I could use an ATM card abroad, and buy school supplies for the course. Sometimes I was so caught up in preparations for the voyage that I forgot there was going to be an actual class for three hours a day, five days a week!
By the time I got to the airport, my head was spinning. I cried as I said goodbye to Mom, Dad, and my sister/best friend Shannon (I have yet to leave home for college dry-eyed… it’s hard to leave my family!), but quickly composed myself as I met up with my group. It was seven o’clock on a Saturday night as we all introduced ourselves and headed through security. Energy was high as we waited to board. At ten o’clock, I finally sat down on the plane next to Alice, who would be living with the same host family as me.