In a small village in Tanzania, Mama Anna teaches local children from a makeshift classroom in her home. She greets everyone in the village by name and always looks for ways to help others, even in the face of her positive HIV diagnosis.
“As a leader, she is innovative, compassionate and committed,” said Meagan Holbrook, a 2013 graduate of the University of Mary Washington. “Those three traits enable her to do great things in her community and allow others to benefit from her talents.”
Holbrook and eight UMW students traveled to Tanzania in July as part of a faculty-led study abroad program. The 14-day trip, led by Vice President for Student Affairs Doug Searcy, was the culmination of last semester’s “Cultural Leadership in Tanzania” leadership seminar course.
“I think in America sometimes we lose sight of what community means and what family means,” Holbrook said. “In Tanzania, even when people may not have had the time or the resources, they welcomed us into their homes and made us feel like we belonged.”
When students visited an orphanage in Arusha, Tanzania, Christophe Perdu ’14 was instantly struck by the contrast between the disadvantaged surroundings and the smiling, joyful faces of the children. The simplest of activities – kicking a soccer ball, coloring a picture, or learning a new game – seemed to bring joy to their faces, so much so that when the students left, children clung to them.
“It’s about being able to forget about material goods and really focus on what does make you happy,” he said. “It’s about enjoying life itself.”
During the trip, the group learned from local families and village elders like Mama Anna, spent a day at a Masai village, met with educational and government leaders, took a three-day safari at the Serengeti National Park and volunteered at a local school, all with the goal of exposing students to new leadership styles and cultural customs.
Despite the language differences – Tanzanians primarily speak Swahili – the students quickly made connections between leadership traits in the East African country and those in the U.S.
“The students soaked up the culture and capitalized on every opportunity to learn,” Searcy said. “In the evenings we would reflect on what we experienced that day, and I was always impressed with the students’ understanding and articulation of the Tanzanian culture and community and how it related to their world view. They engaged at the highest level.”
The students’ journey started more than 18 months ago when Holbrook participated in a semester-long internship through the vice president’s office and expanded a current UMW leadership course to focus on international issues.
“International education is an excellent tool to help students learn about other perspectives,” Searcy said. “In turn, it helps them to understand how they fit into the world.”
“I feel extremely fortunate to be able to share in this experience with other students and learn about the country, its culture and leadership,” Holbrook said. “I would never have had this experience at any other school. Mary Washington has allowed me to be innovative and help create part of my own education. That’s just one more reason I love UMW.”