CARBONDALE - Southern Illinois University Carbondale students who accompany Peter Gitau, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students, to his native Kenya have a lot to write home about.
They visit Nairobi, the cosmopolitan capital of Kenya. They take in the beaches and Indian Ocean on the coastline. They are on safari for three days, seeing close up some of the most exotic and beautiful wildlife on the continent. But it is the week they spend in a Kenyan village, living with host families and working both at family related chores and tasks, and at the project that is at the center of their trip, that is the most life changing.
And that, Gitau said, is why he takes students to Kenya.
"I know when those students go back to their own communities, they will go back different people," he said.
Gitau has taken students with him to Kenya for 12 years, even before his association with SIUC. His student groups always include a service-learning component. On this visit, the group worked to further construction of a library begun by a previous group. While in the village, the students were paired up and placed with host families, giving them the opportunity to live as native Kenyans live.
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Gitau said this particular group was one of the more diverse. This group included students of various ages, majors and backgrounds, and even a student with family in Kenya.
Abigael Mbuvi, a junior journalism major from Champaign, has aunts, uncles and cousins in Kenya, and has visited them there previously. Though Mbuvi has experienced village life in Kenya, she said this trip still presented her with a different culture, different traditions.
"I don't notice cultural difference so much with family," she said.
She chose to include the service-learning experience into her Kenya trip because Gitau is a family friend. She remembers especially well the day she and the other students presented children of the village with clothing they bought for them. Some of the children, she said, had uniforms that differed from the standard, a good indicator there may be money problems at home. All the children received some clothing gift, but Mbuvi felt especially moved by a fourth-grade boy who, the students learned, was taking care of three younger siblings at home and maintaining the household much on his own.
That day resonated with Kelsie Koger as well. Koger, a criminology and criminal justice junior from Centralia, also enjoyed teaching and working with the children when she wasn't helping with the library. Her decision to go to Kenya was nearly last minute, she said. However, she felt Gitau prepared them all well for the challenges and adventures they could expect on the trip.
"It's a life-changing experience," she said, adding that she encourages others to experience the service-learning Kenyan trip -- and recommends bringing along snack food, as the Kenyan diet is very different from the American diet.
The group also had a gift from Saluki Athletics -- a 54-pound duffle bag stuffed with Saluki jerseys. The group distributed the jerseys at two of the three schools it visited, handing them out as soccer uniforms. Gitau said sports are very important in Kenya, but uniforms are not always easily obtained. The Saluki jerseys will be soccer uniforms for the students.
Gitau also said he never has problems recruiting students. He said the students who travel with him are ready to learn about another culture, and want more than just a tourist-based gloss.
"You can go to Kenya and see some buildings and see some wild animals, but you will not have seen Kenya," he said. "The best way to learn about another culture, to challenge perceptions and break down barriers, is to do this, to live within that culture and to experience it in daily life. At the end of this three weeks, you have a changed person."
Gitau said that, for as much as those who travel with him grow and develop, so do the villagers with whom they stay.
"The community is transformed," Gitau said, noting that the SIUC students, just by being themselves, break down stereotypes about Americans.
Dr. Ted Grace, director of the SIUC Student Health Center, said he chose to join the Kenya group for several reasons, including the possibility of setting up a medical service learning trip in the future.
"We may go back with some of our students in some of the pre-medical programs, such as community or school health education, nursing, or the physician assistant programs," he said.
While in Kenya, Grace had the opportunity to teach a class of middle school and junior high students. Though his topic, human sexuality, initially seemed to embarrass the students, they insisted on a second class to learn more.
"I didn't want to visit a country peripherally," Grace said. "I wanted to get to know the culture. I like the idea that Peter Gitau is from Kenya, that he can guide us and show us all aspects of Kenya. This is a great experience for our students."
The Kenyan trip this summer included: Martha Cropper, Murphysboro, a doctoral student in health education; Dr. Ted Grace, director of the Student Health Center, Diane Hayes, Edwardsville, a doctoral student in speech communication; Kelsie Koger, Centralia, criminology and criminal justice major; Abigael Mbuvi, Champaign, journalism major; Sean McGahan, Aurora, journalism major; Elhaum Mogharreban, currently of Carbondale, communication disorders and sciences major; Katelyn Nolan, Monument, Colo., graduate student in higher education; Malcolm X Jamal, a student from the University of Iowa.
Gitau said many students choose to earn college credit for their time in Kenya. "There is an educational component to the entire trip," he said. "We can find creative ways for students to apply their financial aid to this service-learning mission, and there are various payment options. We don't want students not to attend because of lack of money."
For more information about service learning in Kenya or any of the other study abroad opportunities, visit http://www.ips.siu.edu/SA/index.html. The Kenya trip is an annual journey, offered during several weeks of late May through early June, and is open to all SIUC students, faculty, staff and also to community members.
Andrea Hahn is a staff writer for SIUC University Communications