Photo courtesy of NYU Office of Web Communications

Study Abroad Series: Accra

This is the second in a series of articles on study abroad sites in which The Gazelle will feature in-depth conversations with recently-returned ...

Photo courtesy of NYU Office of Web Communications
This is the second in a series of articles on study abroad sites in which The Gazelle will feature in-depth conversations with recently-returned students from each site. These conversations focus on the un-Googleable — you can use a search engine for suggestions on what to do on a Saturday morning in Accra, but not to know how someone felt about leaving their best friend behind for four months.
Names have been changed so that the interviewees can speak freely.

On transition

Anna: It was overwhelming at first, definitely, because it’s such a different place and I think poverty is so much more obvious there, so I think it was just a lot to take in at first.
Ellen: In a lot of ways, I didn’t really prepare differently for Ghana [than studying abroad for the first time in Abu Dhabi], and when I got there realized that it’s different than studying in Abu Dhabi. I think I really realized, and this was just a first study abroad realization, that I created a specific home in Abu Dhabi, so it’s not just studying away from home there. But other than that, the transition was extraordinarily smooth.

On culture shock

Ellen: I think the biggest shock was that concept of time was a little bit different in Accra, and maybe a little bit of work ethic as well. Lunch might be two or three hours, so if you go to a restaurant it takes a very long time for people to take your order, for your food to come, or making it to a meeting on time. And the other thing is being a college-age student who is a foreigner there, particularly for girls, you’re pretty on the spot. I guess another culture shock was paying in bribing; I’ve never lived in a country where bribing is a standard fee.

On dealing with change

Anna: I think just talking about it with the other students who were there, with the staff who were there [helped]. For example, with my internship – I was interning with the Human Rights Advocacy center, and was able to speak with a staff person about the overwhelming parts of the work.
Ellen: I think coming from Abu Dhabi actually helps. For instance, I didn’t really wear super short shorts in the streets, but some of my friends that didn’t come from Abu Dhabi did [and] they really called attention to themselves. So I think in some ways the modesty that you learn here at least superficially really helped. You have to change some of your ways of thinking. For instance, it’s very common for men to come up to you and touch your arms, and ask you to marry them, or people to shout “obroni” to you, which means foreigner. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, the fact that you’re noticed. But not feeling like it’s personal helps. I think for a lot of people it will be really frustrating, and it may be difficult to circumvent that, but eventually you will realize that it’s not you.

On independence

Anna: We were in a very small site and we spent a lot of time together, and in many ways I think we were planning our own time and able to go out more by ourselves which is quite different from here, because we were more in the city … we were more independent, but it’s also a very small supportive site, so we were also very much in the NYU Accra bubble. I was surprised in some ways by how much it reminded me of Abu Dhabi in that.
Ellen: I felt incredibly independent, especially compared to Abu Dhabi. From the dorms to classes, it’s a ten minute walk. You can get a gym membership in the city, which is maybe a half hour walk, and you can go out to the downtown area. Breakfast and lunch are on your own, and then you have dinner with your peers, it’s organized as a group, but it’s optional. I travelled almost every single weekend, by sort of a shared van, which was so nice, because you can really plan your own trip and there isn't a big language barrier.

On learning Twi

Anna: Originally I was planning to take Twi as a course …  but I realized that the classes are so demanding and so I ended up not taking it as an academic course, and just learning it in the global orientation, from taxi drivers, people who I bought food from... I think people are super friendly and eager to teach you.

On classes

Ellen: Almost all of the professors are local. I had one professor who was of British origin but has grown up in Ghana, so he was my only white professor, but all of the other ones were from Accra, and they were all awesome. One of the reasons I went to Accra was because a student who had come before us said that she had the best professors of her life. I wouldn’t say that classes there are hard by any means in comparison to Abu Dhabi  — you have to do a lot less work — but you’re learning a lot.
Anna: I think the courses are really rigorous, as demanding or more as the classes here. That was my experience, but some of the students under-loaded, so it was a bit different for them. The classes are really connected to being in Ghana, and teach a different perspective than we’re getting here, so it’s really valuable.

On meeting locals

Anna: For me it was just really walking on a street and buying food, I had people from whom I bought fruit every day, and interned with, so the organization that I was with was all Ghanaian staff... And there are a lot of internship opportunities, and I think that’s one of the best ways to get to know the people there.
Ellen: Actually, I think that the nightlife is the best way to do that. People assume that Accra doesn’t really have a nightlife, but it really does. So for girls, bring some clothing that you want to go out in! Bring heels! [The locals] showed us some bars that everyone goes to … and that I think was the singularly most helpful way that I made friends and ended up having some meaningful interactions with locals.

On making NYU friends

Anna: We definitely got to know each other really well. It felt really like a family by the end.
Ellen: I made incredibly close friends there, way closer than friends I made in any other study abroad site. It’s a pretty intimate program, when I was there there were around 30 of us.

On living in Accra

Anna: I know my area of it very well, as we kind of went in the same circles every week, but Accra is huge… You’re probably going to find your own niche there.
Ellen: I had a lot of fun there. It’s incredibly cheap, there is a lot of things you can do from exhibitions to going to different beaches, to travelling, to going to clubs. The best thing I did by far was travelling. There is a lot of ways to get involved in local customs in a way that is extremely rewarding, particularly when compared to Abu Dhabi.

On food

Ellen: The food is really amazing, I loved eating rice and beans in the morning, and other street food. It was extraordinarily easy for me to be vegan there.

On the site

Ellen: In general, it’s a really good place to meet people and to really think about a lot of cultural assumptions that you have. It’s a really good place to be present and not worry about what you should be doing over the summer for your internship or what’s going on in Abu Dhabi. People just forget about Accra a lot, or I think they have stereotypes about it that there is not going to be hot water, or that internet is bad, neither of which is true. Maybe there’s just a lack of desire to study in Africa. And I think that’s pretty unfortunate; it was one of the biggest learning experiences I’ve had so far at this university.
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