After years of working closely with students from East Africa, Saint Mary’s University writing center director Cheryl Prentice decided that she wanted to visit and teach in the area where these students’ learning began.

CAPTION: Prentice poses for a photo with English (left) and religion (right) teachers from Bisrate Gabrial Lasallian school in Dire Dawa.

“The more I worked with these students, who’re just wonderful, I knew I needed to go and be immersed in their native setting,” Prentice said. “There’s only so much I could learn from them, I had to see their world. I realized that knowing their prior situations and learning experiences would give me insights about their academic and social needs here.”

So off she went, embarking on a five-week visit to Dire Dawa, Ethiopia along with former student and psychotherapist Ahmed Hassan M’08. Hassan and Prentice became acquainted during his master’s studies in counseling and psychology at Saint Mary’s Twin Cities Campus in Minneapolis. Hassan has since opened clinics in St. Paul and Moorhead. Being from East Africa, Hassan was able to show Prentice around during her first visit to the African continent.

“I don’t think I could have done it without him,” Prentice said of Hassan’s guidance. “Having been born and raised in East Africa, he knows the region and speaks three of the major languages spoken there. Also, because of our mutual interest in the education of African immigrants, we were able to visit schools, explore educational practices and discuss possible projects for the future.”

prentice_300While meeting and teaching elementary school-aged youth, Prentice noticed an immediate level of poverty. She didn’t see any toys around, and classrooms were illuminated by a single window. When she pulled out an iPad, the children crowded around her, asking to have their picture taken. At first, she wasn’t sure why they were so fascinated with the device; then, she realized that many of these children have never seen their own photograph. “When I showed them their photographs on the iPad, the students went wild,” Prentice said. “They would follow me down the street, because they wanted their pictures taken.”

Prentice quickly fell in love with the culture while also realizing that there was a lot of work to be done. The literacy rate, while 70 percent in Dire Dawa, is merely 10 percent in some rural areas. There aren’t enough schools for all of the children, although many are already working at markets and other jobs soon after elementary school. Instead of handing out books, teachers often have to walk miles to a copy center to make duplicates of textbook pages for assigned reading.

Apprehensive at first, the Ethiopian students warmed up to Prentice especially after learning she was from Kentucky and could speak in a Southern accent. “They loved when I said they could ask me questions,” Prentice said. “Some of the more confident ones came forward, and then it was just a barrage. They wanted to know about English accents, they wanted me to pronounce words.”

Although electricity was sometimes unavailable for miles, and homes were often made of wood, blankets or other available resources, Prentice found the people of Dire Dawa to be resourceful, despite an average family income of around $250 per month.

“Most people there are very, very poor in ways that we can’t imagine,” Prentice said. “They function very well though. They’re resilient and they’re friendly. I tried to imagine how I would live there. They are so successful at their lives in that context. They’re so proud, you don’t have that feeling about them being poor. There were a lot of things that they showed me, and they taught me a lot.”

Despite being a stranger from across the ocean, the community that she visited welcomed her with open arms. “I’m not used to being around people all the time, except at school,” Prentice said. “I live alone. I’d open my bungalow door in Dire Dawa, and there would be a crowd outside ready to talk. There are no movie theaters, no malls — the entertainment is talking to your neighbors. Every trip to the grocery store took a long time, because there were always people to talk to along the way.”

At the end of her five-week stay, Prentice returned to Minnesota with new insight and perspective. Spending time as a stranger in another country, she experienced what some of her students go through on a daily basis.

“Of course, my limited experience in Africa cannot inform me about every non-native student I meet. However, from the experiences of my journey I will undoubtedly be a better teacher of East African students; just as importantly, I will undoubtedly live a better life from what the East Africans taught me.”

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