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AU students gain cultural insights and time management skills abroad

Students juggled important projects and heavy workloads in Prague, Brussels and Nairobi

American University students travel the globe to delve into their academic and career interests through the school’s study abroad programs. In the fall semester, AU students gained hands-on experience in diverse areas such as filmmaking and public health in culturally vibrant cities like Prague, Brussels and Nairobi

Throughout their overseas endeavors, students not only explored their chosen fields but also immersed themselves in foreign cultures, all while managing demanding workloads.

Bekla Kouakou, a senior in the School of International Service, chose to spend the fall 2023 semester in Nairobi, Kenya, participating in the “Politics and Society in Africa” program. This program offers students the chance to explore international relations, development and politics through coursework and an internship in Nairobi. Kouakou, a native of Côte d’Ivoire, was drawn to the program not only for her academic interests but also to be exposed to a new region of the continent.

“I didn’t feel like going to Europe, because Europe was so easily accessible to the public and Africa has a different context when it comes to access,” Kouakou said. “I honestly wanted to see a different part of Africa since I’ve been to the west. I’ve been to the north, but I haven't been anywhere else other than the west and north. So, Kenya was a perfect opportunity for me to experience that.”

Similarly, Katie Brescia, a junior in AU’s Three-Year Public Health Scholars Program, participated in the “Public and Global Health Program” in Nairobi. Brescia chose the program because of its affordability and the opportunity to intern at the AMURT Health Care Centre. The 14-week program provided classes on Kenya’s culture and colonial past in addition to classes on public health. 

“I grew very close with the clinicians that I was working with, getting to learn from them and having that first firsthand experience. And I got to meet and talk with lots of patients as well,” Brescia said. “So, I was surrounded by new people who I got to interact with on a daily basis and people that I still communicate with to this day.”

The structure of Kouakou’s semester, split between classes and an internship, mirrored Brescia’s experience. The initial half of the “Politics and Society in Africa” program focused on understanding Kenya’s infrastructure and advancements as a society while the second half involved an internship at the Kenya Human Rights Commission. However, Kouakou noted the challenge of a condensed schedule and intense assessments posed in the lead-up to an internship. 

“We go there and we spent so much time being stressed in the first portion of the semester, because everything is rushed,” Kouakou said. “Because you’re trying to put a 14-week course into half of that which is kind of crazy.”

Emma Kirby, a junior in the School of Public Affairs, studied in both Belgium and Kenya as part of the “Transcontinental Politics, Policy, and Practice” program. The program looks into the way that the European Union and NATO develop policies and how they work in countries like Kenya. Half of the program is dedicated to classes in Brussels, Belgium, and the other half to an internship in Nairobi.

Kirby took classes on the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and regional conflicts and security in Africa. Yet, she found herself surprised by the lack of coordination among professors, leading to midterms right before leaving Belgium and another midterm shortly after arriving in Kenya.

“I feel like our professors didn’t communicate with each other. We’d have a midterm right before we left Belgium and then a week after that, we'd have another midterm,” Kirby said. “Once we got to Kenya, it was three weeks in the classroom and then internships. So, we had our midterms one and a half weeks into being there. So, it felt like they just tried to cram a lot of hours of classes in a short amount of time.”

In Nairobi, Kouakou, Brescia and Kirby attended classes at the AU Nairobi Center, located in the middle of the city. While living in apartments near the Center, Kouakou appreciated the beauty and amenities. 

“Our classes were in a tree house and sometimes we would have class outside. It was beautifully made.” Kouakou said. “We had like cooks in the back who would make us snacks, so every morning we would come in, they’d have tea, coffee, fruit. Just snacks for us waiting.”

Beyond the academic setting, Kouakou enjoyed the vibrant social scene, going out to clubs with classmates and engaging with the local community. Through conversations with locals, she learned about cultural traditions and tribes like the Maasai, often finding herself answering inquiries about her identity as someone living in America.

“When they see Americans, they want to like talk to you. They want to know more about America,” Kouakou said. “I’ve met people from the different tribes, obviously, who were telling me about the culture and about the traditions, the customs and stuff like that, but a lot of them, they want to know what you do as an American.” 

On weekends, Brescia explored safaris and Kenyan animal sanctuaries with classmates, gaining insights into African wildlife at the Nairobi National Park.

“It reminded me of Central Park in New York City, except it's a reserve that has zebras and giraffes on it,” Brescia said. “We did that within our first weekend that we were there and that was my first time having that kind of experience and being so close to wildlife and being in an environment that’s vastly different from something that you would see in the U.S.”

In addition to Nairobi, AU students also ventured to Prague in the Czech Republic for their studies. Will Rogers, a senior in the School of Communication, participated in the CET Film Production program at the Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts. This unique opportunity allowed students to explore the art of filmmaking through mentorship from industry professionals and collaborative work on student films.

Rogers’ classes covered pre-production, production and post-production, addressing topics like scriptwriting, cinematography and lighting. Rogers credited the program with instilling fearlessness in his approach to filmmaking.

“A lot of times, I think when people get into film or any type of art, one the biggest burdens is people can be too conservative in their approach,” Rogers said.  “And sometimes when you kind of let go of any of those concerns, any of those doubts, it’s almost like you have this freedom and it can really take you to places that you wouldn’t expect. And something similarly happened with us in this process.”

Beyond the classroom, Rogers and his classmates explored Prague’s cultural gems such as Prague Castle and Charles Bridge. Rogers appreciated the city’s architecture.

“It’s almost like a blend of old architecture with modern if you look in certain parts of the city. It feels like you’re walking through another point in time,” Rogers said.

Kate Henry, a junior in SOC and the College of Arts and Sciences, also participated in the CET Film Production program. Students collaborated in groups on 16mm films, and Rogers, Henry and their classmates created the film, “For the Love of God.” Reflecting on the experience, Henry believes it provided her with a deeper understanding of her aspirations in the film industry.

“I learned so much about filmmaking, in general,” Henry said. “We’ve had one week of classes, and I’ve already applied so much of the knowledge that I got there in terms of being on set, knowing what the roles are and knowing how to communicate.” 

This article was edited by Samantha Skolnick, Abigail Turner and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks, Isabelle Kravis, Sarah Clayton and Olivia Citarella.

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