Life-changing Liberia: Auburn students make impact, gain transcendent experience through special study abroad program

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More than 5,000 miles away from “the loveliest village on the Plains,” Brittany Branyon had a life-changing moment only dreamed about by most university educators and students.

The doctoral student and mother of two was busy working with Auburn University Department of Political Science Associate Professors Kelly Krawczyk and Bridgett King as part of a group of graduate students on a weeklong study abroad trip to the capital city of Monrovia, Liberia, when she experienced an “Aha” moment. Branyon—who earned her bachelor’s in political science from Auburn and a master’s in international relations from the University of Oklahoma—was helping teach a group of students from the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa when her future goals as an academic and professional advocate became crystal clear.

“In that moment, everything came full circle,” said Branyon, whose doctorate will be in public administration and public policy. “From seeing and reading about the civil war that was happening in Liberia years ago and the women like [Nobel Laureate] Leymah Gbowee who made such a difference, to being there talking with these women—we were teaching them, but they could have been teaching us.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to come back, I’ve got to keep doing this. There’s got to be a way.’ I think I emailed [Krawczyk] that day and said, ‘I don’t know how I can keep doing this, but I need you to teach me how.’”

Krawczyk has been taking Auburn University students to African nations as the study abroad element of the Master of Public Administration and joint Public Administration and Public Policy doctoral program for seven years. This summer’s trip—which took place June 18-27—was part of the Public Administration, Civil Society & Democracy course.

The course was structured around the three legs of academia—teaching, research and outreach. Students led classroom instruction, delivered training workshops, collaborated on ongoing research projects and conducted focus groups with participating constituents.

Auburn’s group was tasked with developing curriculum that helped provide instruction for nearly 50 students from African Methodist Episcopal University, or AMEU, and the University of Liberia. The Auburn students facilitated and implemented a qualitative field research short course for undergraduates on site at AMEU.

Auburn students also designed and delivered capacity-building trainings to Liberian civil society organizations, including a training program in advocacy, community mobilization and social justice for the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa and a marketing and resource development workshop for the non-governmental organization, or NGO, Hope Alliance Liberia.

As part of the qualitative research course, Auburn students also wrote a 70-page, self-contained course manual, another 40-page training manual and took the lead on the program’s implementation of the trip’s objectives. The dozens of Liberian students who participated received course completion certificates, and faculty and leaders from the Liberian universities also attended and participated in the classes.

“They learned a lot about best practices and then actually went out and did it, and I think they learned how things can happen in the field and how you have to adapt and be flexible,” Krawczyk said. “This course is designed to be all experiential learning, and students have gained real-world, applied, global experience that they can then list on their resumes. The students did all of it—they designed it and implemented it, and we just supervised.”

The chief aim of Auburn’s visit was to develop and implement international service learning activities, and the group decided along with the university to focus on delivering a qualitative methods short course, as well as on producing and delivering training workshops and social media content for the NGOs.

“They did an amazing job and created this whole plan when we got to the school to create three different marketing videos that would be suitable for their website and social media,” Krawczyk said. “One is a historical 30-second video about the school, its founder, its development and what the mission of the school is. The second video is going to be kind of a fundraising video, and the third video will be about an adopt-a-student program they were helping move forward. They did all of that, did interviews and took video while we were there, and the school’s students and staff were in the videos.”

Another of Auburn’s contingent, doctoral student Elena Roversi, jumped at the chance to participate in the excursion.

“I’ve always dreamed about being a good actor in society,” said Roversi, who has worked with UNICEF in Senegal. “I think you can change people’s lives in different ways, and one of those is what we did in Liberia. It was more about trying to strengthen the universities there, helping the students decide what’s best for them and giving them knowledge so they can have more opportunities and options.

“It was good that we could share what Auburn, and particularly our program, could offer them. I really enjoyed my time there, and the people were incredible.”

Making a longstanding impact

Krawczyk has spearheaded Auburn’s program and established roots in numerous West African countries during her tenure, traveling with students to Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa in addition to Liberia. Each trip is different, with specific goals and designs in mind.

“We tailor it each time to the students in the course and the country case study,” Krawczyk said.

King, a scholar who frequently studies elections in developing democracies like Liberia, also was excited to make the trip along with a half-dozen graduate students.

“It was interesting and exciting to see them taking ownership of the curriculum and its instruction in a new environment they weren’t familiar with,” said King, who directs the College of Liberal Arts’ political science public administration program. “I appreciated the cultural awareness and competency lens they used to approach the instruction for the students.

“The Auburn students really embraced the experience we took them on full force. They really had no idea what they were getting into beyond, ‘We’re getting on a plane, we’re going to teach and deliver curriculum.’ The openness and awareness with which they approached all of the things we did I appreciated, and I think the university and NGOs in Liberia did as well.”

The collaboration was an equal and beneficial exchange of learning opportunities and ideas.

“The interaction with the students and their ideas was very fulfilling since they were sharing their life experiences with us,” said Roversi, who is co-authoring a paper about feminist perspectives in Liberia with Branyon. “These types of programs and experiences are really important for universities like Auburn to provide for students. I really liked the exchange with the students [at AMEU].”

Branyon said the Auburn team found the Liberian students and NGO representatives to be eager to learn and excited to broaden their knowledge base.

“They’re already advocating for their causes but are just trying to fine-tune things,” Branyon said. “It almost feels like advocacy and community mobilization is in their blood because their democracy is so new and they have actively fought for what they have. They’re also very hungry for communications, marketing and fundraising support and learning how to do that, both at the grassroots level, but also for donors who may be interested.”

Krawczyk said this summer’s trip had an immediate impact on the Liberian students and organizations.

“The NGO is already using the training materials,” she said. “They’re soliciting local donors to help extend their adopt-a-student program, are looking at creating community work and service days and are taking all sorts of ideas that were generated during the training and putting them into action.”

Before the trip, Auburn’s group also organized an educational supply drive, where they took new and used donated educational materials—workbooks, classroom books, puzzles, games, markers, pencils, even a talking globe—and worked with the local Auburn nonprofit, Oslyn Rodriguez’s Backpack International, that provides backpacks filled with supplies to schools around the world. The partnership produced 70 backpacks filled with supplies that the group delivered from Auburn to Liberia for students to utilize this fall.

“We traveled with 18 suitcases, and we left nine of them there,” Krawczyk said.

Seminal experience for all

The program’s 10-day trip had a profound impact on all who were part of the collaborative effort.

“I think it went great,” Krawczyk said. “This particular iteration of the class was absolutely the most successful, in terms of international service learning, experiential learning and providing opportunities for students to really to go out there and do the things related to teaching, research and service. I think we provided real-world opportunities for the Auburn students.

“You can plan and know best practices and guidelines for how you would implement all of these things, but having to do it in the field is always different. So, I think we gave them some real opportunities to actually do this kind of work.”

The benefits to the Liberian universities were profound.

“This workshop was so clear in its teaching, and the facilitators were knowledgeable and patient with the students,” said Sylvestine Gbessagee, chair of social work, African Methodist Episcopal University. “The students and faculty, as well as I, enjoyed the training workshop in a topic that we all felt was difficult. Having a workbook was an added advantage to the students taking research classes and faculty teaching research.

“Having a training manual was an added advantage in that they all had a working tool to use then and in the future.”

Hope Alliance Academy Founder and Executive Director Benedict Quato was effusive with praise for the Auburn program.

“Our collaboration with Auburn University and its programs has impacted our programs in many important ways since we established contact with Dr. Kelly Krawczyk in 2015,” Quato said. “The collaboration has brought us financial stability through fundraisers and donations toward key program areas. Through the regular capacity development trainings by Dr. Krawczyk, Dr. Bridgett King and their MPA and Ph.D. students, our team is stronger in programming and fundraising. Our adopt-a-student campaign, which is largely supported through this collaboration, is keeping 10 kids from underprivileged families at our school in Johnsonville.

“This collaboration has also empowered us with needed books and school supplies to improve our youth development and education programs in Liberia. The collaboration has made Hope Alliance Liberia a better organization, and we anticipate a long-term collaboration going into the future. It has truly been a blessing.”

Because of the momentum and impact from the program’s work in Africa, the Department of Political Science added a graduate certificate in Global Public Service at the beginning of fall semester. For Krawczyk, the experience this June served as a reminder of why she works so hard to make the program a success.

“It absolutely affirms why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Krawczyk said. “We’ve gone from the first iteration of this class in Liberia—when I took four students and we did international election observation on our own as Auburn University as an entity—to having an established relationship and an open invitation with an institution of higher education, as well as an established partnership with several NGOs.

“So, each time we go, we’re building that relationship and are able to take on new opportunities and new work because we’re not having to start from Ground Zero in building those relationships and making those contacts. We’re already talking about what we’re doing next and when we’ll come back. The opportunities become endless.”

King couldn’t be happier with the results.

“We did all the things we set out to do,” King said. “One of the amazing things about teaching these classes is that, once you take the students somewhere once, they want to go everywhere. They recognize beyond what we could communicate to them in class what it is their futures and careers as academics, policy or administration professionals who work in government or non-governmental organizations can actually look like.”

Roversi was able to broaden her horizons through the course.

“As a student, it gave me the opportunity of discovering a place I wouldn’t necessarily go by myself,” Roversi said. “I never imagined I would go to Liberia and try to test my skills, both in interacting with people who have a different background and culture and also teaching. I think it’s definitely something that everyone should do.”

It was an experience Branyon says changed the trajectory of her future.

“It completely changed my life,” said Branyon, who hopes to work with the U.S. State Department or an NGO after completing her doctorate. “I always knew I was interested in things like this, and I’m so grateful to Dr. Krawczyk and Dr King for believing in me and bringing me along. I can’t imagine my life without that experience.”

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