In September of 2022 I, like hundreds of thousands of other U.S. students, packed my bags and embarked on a study abroad year. Roughly 63% of college students expressed interest in study abroad in 2017, but only about 14.3% ended up actually going abroad. Things happen, life happens, and the idea of living in another country can seem daunting, but that shouldn't stop you from exploring, learning, and growing. Studying abroad is an invaluable experience that allows for more cultural sensitivity, less bias, mutual understanding, and more global awareness in all forms – whether it be new perspectives on historical and current events or simply a new hobby.
Ghana An Unconventional Choice
Ghana was not a conventional choice for a year abroad and I heard the same concerns echoed from important people in my life. “It doesn’t sound safe.” “What if you get hurt?” “Won't you miss your family?” I never wavered in my decision to study abroad, but I did wonder if I had made the best choice because what if the things people were saying to me were true? Germany and Kyrgyzstan would've been different, but what if they were better? But that's exactly why I stayed steadfast in my choice. Ghana was a place many people had heard of, it's in West Africa, known as the “Gateway to Africa”, and despite being a small nation compared to its better-known neighbor, Nigeria, its business friendly government and name recognition are far reaching. But despite this, not many people have a real idea of what culture and life is like there. From the moment I stepped off the plane, my perception was already being challenged. I had read about the bustling streets and busy markets, but nothing had prepared me for witnessing them for myself, and then eventually becoming a normal, but never mundane, part of my life. Everything was so colorful and everyone was so welcoming. Meeting my host family for the first time 7 days after our arrival was nerve wracking. What if they didn’t like me? What if I didn’t live up to their expectations? But in spite of my fears, they were incredibly welcoming and willing to help.
My world started small and only got bigger and bigger. First it was my street and the store next to it, then the small food market down the road, then the mall, and eventually markets and restaurants all over the city. I had grown up in the same small town my whole life so I didn’t have experience living and navigating a major city. My first real outing was to the Global Citizen Festival, a free concert to raise awareness for global issues, located at the iconic Black Star Square. It was amazing to see the intersection of culture with both American and Ghanaian artists performing.
Finding a Rhythm, Embracing Culture Shock
Eventually, life fell into a rhythm. I started school – first at a local public school and then at a private school and eventually, I joined a gym and started going to yoga classes. School was a culture shock. The yearly schedule did not align with the U.S. school schedule and I was set to have 3 months off in the middle of my exchange, so I moved to a private school. There was an adjustment period – I had just made friends at my old school and had to go into a new group of peers and part of me was nervous that this group wouldn’t be nearly as inviting, but I was welcomed with open arms. I chose the science track, so I took a number of elective science classes along with the core sciences, and history and english. The social environment was far different, students couldn't ask questions, lessons weren’t very engaging, and there was a strict student-teacher hierarchy. Days were long and often hard to get through, but that too was a learning opportunity. I figured out how I could make the most out of my day there. Being on the science track meant I had labs, allowing for time out of the classroom and hands-on experience. During breaks while people were studying for the WASSCE, Ghana’s intensive graduation exams, I would handwrite email responses (there was a strict no technology rule) and read. It took some getting used to, but that too became a place of laughter, gossip, and lunchtime advice with friends
Having a social life like I did in the U.S. was difficult because I wasn't able to hang out with my friends from school as most of them were in the dorms and couldn't leave, and those that lived at home studied almost all of the time. So, I found different outlets. The other Americans on my program and I would go to restaurants, the mall, the markets, and all over the city on weekends. I initially started yoga in order to keep my flexibility and strength so I could return to all-star cheerleading when I got home but I found a group of women, both foreign and Ghanaian, who were an invaluable support to me. It was a place of discussion, I had struggled with the young people “are seen, not heard” aspect of Ghanaian culture, and this room of strong, career focused women allowed me to have a space where I felt my voice was heard. The community was incredibly uplifting and positive and provided an escape when I was not feeling my best.
Learning and Adapting to a New Culture
Host families were an integral part of my exchange and while they aren’t a part of every exchange and living with one had its challenges, the experience provided opportunities for personal and interpersonal growth. I started out in a host family that wasn’t the best fit for me, but they were still lovely and more than willing to help me learn to adapt in such a new environment. I’m not going to sugar coat my experience and say that everything with my first host family was sunshine and rainbows because frankly, it wasn’t. I tore myself up about it but the experience allowed me to realize that people don't get along with everyone they meet, let alone are they able to live with them. After about a month and a half I switched host families and my new one was equally willing to help and go to bat for me. Our lives just meshed in a way that my other one’s didn't. My host dad would always kill the bugs in my room, my host mom always had breakfast waiting for me in the mornings, and they would both make sure to tell me that I was their daughter even though I was only with them for 7 months and that I would always be welcomed back. Sure, we had our fair share of disagreements and miscommunications, but we were able to work past them and by the end of my exchange, we were like family. Even though my time in Ghana is over, I still keep in contact with my second host family!
So, if you are on the fence about traveling or studying abroad, go for it, take the leap, become a global citizen, and better our world!
Shannon-Sophia Halkias is a music student at Capital Area School for the Arts and will graduate in May 2024. She hopes to continue to inspire women and girls to create change and promote mutual understanding through education and experiences.