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An experience like no other: from UFV to East Africa to Rideau Hall

If the experience of studying abroad appeals to you but you’re itching for a break from classrooms and want to do something practical, social work student Lisa Harrington might have just the answer for you. She’s part of a unique project at UFV: the East Africa Internship Program.

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If the experience of studying abroad appeals to you but you’re itching for a break from classrooms and want to do something practical, social work student Lisa Harrington might have just the answer for you. She’s part of a unique project at UFV: the East Africa Internship Program. As the internship coordinator and a two-time former intern, Harrington acts as the right-hand to geography and the environment professor Cherie Enns, the program’s supervisor. The program sends groups of students to East African countries to conduct a variety of research, while forging some unforgettable memories along the way. Harrington spoke to The Cascade about the program, its goals, and the experiences it offered her both in Africa and back in Canada.

Can you tell me what the East Africa Internship Program is in a nutshell?

Cherie Enns had been doing East Africa internships for quite a while, and she connected UFV to the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarships Program (QES). The QES Scholarships Program sends Canadian students to commonwealth countries to do applied projects, and also sends students from those countries into Canada. We’ve been sending students since 2015, and just under 20 students have gone to Tanzania and Kenya to do applied projects and research based around food systems and food security.

How did this program get started?

Cherie’s been doing it for years and years. She lived in Kenya when she was a child, so she has lifelong ties to the East African region. She went into development, urban planning, and human geography, so she’s been teaching her for a long time. She thinks that professional experiences for students are so, so important, and she goes to bat for anyone who’s willing to do the work. She’s amazing that way. We call her the internship spirit guide.

What kind of work do the students undertake?

It’s research based. It started in Dar es Salaam, where they were looking at formal markets, supermarkets, and where their food was coming from, where it was travelling from, and what local people held important within that. And then it was done very similarly in Nairobi. Essentially, each group has layered on itself. So it started with the supermarkets and formal markets in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, then into Nairobi, Kenya, then the informal vendors in Dar es Salaam, then the informal markets in Arusha, all working with Ardhi University and the East African Institute of Aga Khan University in Nairobi. There’ve been a couple side projects as well. There was a project and report done for Villages of Hope, Mwanza by one of the groups, and there was an urban farming handbook, a small documentary, and we’re at three events that have happened at UFV.

So they’re all interconnected?

Yeah, I’d say that’s one of the coolest parts. Interns come home and meet other interns, and we all know exactly what you mean when you’re like, “I can’t look at peanut butter again after living at Fathers.” We all know each other’s stories, it’s cool.

Peanut butter?

*Laughing* That’s just one of the small things — in Dar es Salaam the students all live in a guest house, Patients Fathers Guest House, so it’s a big house connected to a bunch of little apartments and suites that are all guest houses rented out to people who are travelling, and there’s a free breakfast every morning. It’s very, very simple, but there’s peanut butter and toast every day. It’s one of the only breakfast options so you get a little tired of it. That’s actually a great place that they get to stay, because there are people from all over the world. You sit down to breakfast, and meet people from the Ukraine, the States. I loved it, it was great.

When did you go on your internships?

I went unfunded to Tanzania in 2015. I worked with Kids Care Tanzania because I’m a social work student, so I wasn’t even supposed to be on this internship, I just found myself in it, again, due to Cherie. I was there working with another student, looking at curriculum funding and just interacting with the kids everyday and supporting their learning while they were on break. Then I went back to Nairobi in 2016, at the end of January, and did the food systems research with another student. We were interviewing supermarkets there, and I was working on an urban farmer’s handbook. A previous intern started it, and then I took over, and collaborated with a graphic design student, Julie Henderson, back at UFV. It was all a super huge learning experience for me because I didn’t have research experience. It was tricky, it was really hard, but it was a really, really good experience. The other students were doing things that were very similar: interviews, creating surveys, writing reports, and working with the host institutions a lot to meet their needs. We have our own ideas going in, but it’s really led by them, because it’s supposed to be something useful.

And I imagine just being there is a good learning experience; the different culture, being so far from home.

Absolutely. We try to prep students as much as possible, because you are living with a group of students who are your roommates, friends, and coworkers for months, and you’re working on a really intense, professional project. There’s an expectation that’s been set by multiple students ahead of you that this is going to be great… because it has to be.

There’s that relationship building, and I think the bigger part is that we really have an open communication about what colonialism has looked like, going into another country, understanding our privilege, understanding the gaps we’re filling, and knowing that we’re not going to “save Africa” because that’s not why we’re there. We are taking a lot. They’re not blessed by our presence and our “brilliant university minds.” No. You are there because you are learning and you are gaining experience and you’re going to take away huge cultural understanding and amazing stories that you’ll always remember, but you have to understand that you’re ***taking. And that’s a really hard thing for people to understand, because in Canada we hear the single story about Africa so much that even in the questions you get asked, you can see how that seeps into things. Not in a malicious way, but when you return and people say right away “so, when did you feel scared?” “was it dangerous?” or “that’s amazing, that must be the first time they’ve ever seen someone like you.” No! That is ***not true! That just makes you cringe a lot. So we really try to curb that, so there are a lot of culture meetings and overlap between students coming and going, and seeing how different people are over the course of that trip or how their ideas of things have changed. Sometimes they’re more optimistic and excited, and sometimes they’re more pessimistic because development’s really hard.

What are some of the accomplishments of past interns?

The first group of interns that went has been published. Their article is available at ufveastafricainternships.com, it’s really great, and the last group that just returned presented at the Canadian High Commission in Tanzania. Myself and another student, Jeremy Wagner, because we were part of the Queen Elizabeth Scholarships Program, flew to Ottawa and met with the Right Hon. David Johnston, his wife, the Rideau Hall Foundation, and Jean Chrétien. They just congratulated us on being part of a program that’s been very successful. It was great, we got to meet QES scholars from other places in the world, and meeting people who had travelled from countries that are known for their poverty to come work with homeless people in Winnipeg was awesome. I love that they’re just busting up those stereotypes. It was fantastic — we were kind of wide-eyed, to be honest. It was an experience in itself, an experience I didn’t think I’d be doing, sitting in Rideau Hall having dinner. I’d say my experiences in Tanzania and in Kenya were more impactful and closer to my heart, but I was obviously so flattered and so excited to be there and to meet the people that I met, and the Rideau Hall Foundation is so huge and there’s so many people that want to see Canada doing positive development, or as close to that as we can get. Being there was amazing, just in general to be proud of our work and proud of what we’ve done, it’s a nice thing. And like I said, all the projects are really applied, so the Villages of Hope report is meant to be used, the data that’s gathered and the work that’s done is meant to be useful and meant to contribute, even if it’s in a very small way at this point.

What goals does the program have going forward, either in terms of work in Africa or development of the program?

We hope to continually grow. Our funding for the Queen Elizabeth Scholarships Program ends in 2018, so right now our immediate goals are to find our last few groups of students that are going to go, to round off this part of the program. We want to see students who are capable, who are really open and excited to try new things and to learn in an entirely new way.

How does someone apply for the program? Is there any specific criteria you’re looking for?

We want students that are a little more experienced, so we want you to have a minimum of 60 credits. You don’t have to have travel experience, we’ll do a lot of training before, and you do get credit for going. The application process usually starts with people contacting me at the internship email account (eastafricainternshipufv@gmail.com) and then having a bit of a discussion. They can check out the blog and Facebook page to get an idea of what we’re about, and then from there I’ll meet with them, they’ll start connecting with Cherie Enns, and we move forward from there. They do go under an evaluation from the university, but we like an eclectic group of students. Our last group was a couple development students, a social work student, and an economics student. It’s great to see those different perspectives come together. It’s not like there’s one set, ideal student. We want different ideas and different minds. You do have to be under the age of 30. That and 60 credits are the bare minimum, and from there we start having discussions — if someone came in and couldn’t shake the idea that they were going to rescue the “country” of Africa then we’re probably not going to encourage them to go.

When’s the next trip planned for, and how many students will be going?

We’re hoping to find a few more students to go in May. The number really goes back and forth: we want a minimum of two, we don’t usually send people on their own, especially if they haven’t been before. We try to keep it in even numbers, just for group dynamics — it’s usually more positive — but the least we’ve sent is two, and the most we’ve sent is six.

You can learn more about the East African Internship Program’s previous work, and apply for their upcoming trip at ufveastafricainternships.com.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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