From Harlem to Dakar: My Fulbright Experience in Senegal

As a Fulbright Scholar, Dr. Marie Nazon conducted a qualitative study with the goal of developing an understanding and awareness of women’s experiences with empowerment in self-help groups in Senegal. The study examined how women in self-help groups associate empowerment with changes in women’s social, economical, and psychological conditions after their involvement. Dr. Nazon’s host institution in Senegal was Tostan International where she served as social work consultant for the Tostan Prison Project. She provided support in capacity building, grant writing, program development, mediation, and outreach initiatives in five of the major prisons in Senegal.

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For the academic year 2010-2011, I was one of 13 researchers to receive a Fulbright grant in the African Regional Research Program. This was one of the most exciting, rewarding and productive years of my life and career.  The Fulbright experience brought me into contact with a fascinating array of people and colleagues, from whom I have learned so much about the Senegalese culture and its people. The relationships I made benefitted my life beyond the grant and my research.

My host institution, Tostan International, is a non-profit organization known for its culturally sensitive approach to the community-led female genital cutting and forced marriage abandonment movement in Africa. As an affiliated researcher with Tostan, I had full access to their facilities, resources, and staff. I worked closely with Tostan staff to collect data in two villages where I conducted focus groups and individual interviews with an established women’s group. Prior to data collection, I spent time in the field getting to know the women’s group and the work of Tostan.

During my fieldwork, I learned about a small project in the prison system, the Tostan Prison Project. The prison project provides human rights-based informal education classes with inmates, family mediation, and trains inmates in income-generating activities so that when they are released they have a skill they can use to support themselves. In Senegal, I experienced what life was like behind prison walls. On any given week, I was in at least two of the five prisons where Tostan held programs. I focused my work primarily on the prisons for women and youth. It was a humbling experience for me to provide services for a vulnerable population and it was my work with the prison project that became the defining experience for me as a Fulbright Scholar and as a social worker. The experience with the prison project enhanced my sense of compassion and empathy for others and it helped me learn to be less judgmental.

I undertook some unexpected tasks with the prison project that included being the project manager for the construction of a well in the youth prison, an undertaking that I had initiated and for which I secured funding. At my invitation, the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal attended the inauguration of the well, which was also  the U.S. Embassy’s first visit to the youth prison. In addition to my work with the youth prison, I launched a pilot project in one of the women’s prisons to teach women how to make their own sanitary pads. The project took off and became the Cloth Menstrual Pad Project. The women not only made the pads for themselves but expressed interest in making this an income-generating activity to sell to other women upon their release. The project will be launched at two other women’s prisons where Tostan conducts programs.

In addition to my research and community work, I mentored two undergraduate students at the local university. Also, with access to the U.S. Embassy’s facilities and in coordination with the Media Department at my home institution, I conducted two intercontinental video seminars. One was with students from my home institution in Harlem, New York, and Senegalese students on cross-cultural understanding and study abroad. The other was between a women’s studies class and Tostan staff,  discussing my research and women’s empowerment in developing countries.  What a thrill it was for my students in Harlem and the students in Senegal to overcome time and distance to converse on topics of mutual interest!

I returned to my home institution in Harlem, New York excited, energized, and with a new commitment to my students and my department.  Six months later I returned to Senegal for a short follow-up trip and was invited to do presentations on the Cloth Menstrual Pad Project among other activities. The experience inspired new research interests and contributed to my scholarly activities such that I presented my work with the prison project at the International Social Work Conference. In collaboration with a colleague I met at Tostan, I developed a study abroad program in Senegal focused on women and sustainable community development.

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On a personal note, this experience contributed immeasurably to my social and personal development. I made lifelong friends and professional contacts. But what made this experience special was that the Fulbright grant gave me an opportunity to give my teenage daughter an experience of a lifetime. My daughter started high school in Senegal. She had an opportunity to explore and learn about a totally different culture and to learn French.  Moreover, she experienced tremendous personal growth. She is now studying French at a local college and plans to travel with her school on a study abroad program in Ethiopia. The Fulbright grant is one of the few travel research grants that is family friendly. Fulbright is an opportunity for you and your family to step out into an unknown world and to have a deep engagement with a culture unlike any you have had before. It is a life-changing experience that can leave you forever transformed.

Dr. Marie C. Nazon is Assistant Professor/Counselor with the Department of SEEK Counseling and Student Support  Services  at The City College of New York. SEEK is an opportunity program and stands for Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge.

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