Africa in Our Lives: Emily Gaynor

Photo by Jason Dixson Photography.
“[Employers] recognize students who study abroad in less traditional locations as resourceful, adaptable and open-minded global citizens who aren’t afraid to try something outside the box.” – Emily Gaynor (Photo by Jason Dixson Photography)
Emily Gaynor (BA’10) shares not only her favorite Senegalese foods, but also how her study abroad experience and Wolof language skills have come in handy since returning to the United States.   

Field of study: International Studies, certificates in African Studies and Women’s Studied
Hometown: Concord, NH

Why did you choose to study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?

My family lived in Wisconsin at the time, but I was actually considering going back to New England to study at a small, liberal arts college. I toured UW-Madison’s campus with a high school friend, ate lunch at Husnu’s, walked on the Lakeshore Path, and was hooked. None of the schools I was considering in New England could offer me the academic and social  depth and diversity that UW-Madison did.

How did you make the decision to participate in the Senegal study abroad program?

I had been studying French since I was in 8th grade, and knew I wanted to study abroad in a French-speaking country.  At the time, UW offered study abroad programs in France, Belgium, and Senegal. I chose to study in Senegal because I knew I would never have another opportunity quite like it, whereas I could visit or study in Europe more easily in my future.

What was your thesis or academic work focused on while you were in Senegal?

For the year-long research project, I studied and compared the three most prevalent spheres of education in Saint-Louis: public school, private school, and Koranic school.

In what surprising ways has your Wolof been useful?

Once I returned from Senegal, the study abroad office contacted me because they had been contacted by Madison Public Schools about a new student.  Bintou had just moved to Madison from Senegal and spoke no English and little French, but she did speak Wolof.  At the school’s request, I spent a few hours a week during the spring semester in class with Bintou, translating activities and texts into Wolof or French.

What are three foods you miss most from Senegal?

Yassa poulet, chicken with a peppery lemon onion sauce; ceebujen rouge, fried fish with stewed vegetables in a tomato sauce over rice; and bissap, a delicious drink made from hibiscus flowers and flavored with mint and vanilla sugar. I also miss how meals are eaten–everyone in a household gathers around a large bowl filled with the main dish, and the matriarch splits up the meat and vegetables, distributing portions to everyone present. It was one of my favorite ways to connect to my host family or friends because there was a lot of room for mistakes, shared laughter and togetherness.

In what ways does your experience in Senegal still interact with your life today?

The research project I chose really foreshadowed my career after college. I’ve worked in various school systems and education-focused nonprofits, both in the U.S. and abroad. Just this month actually,  I have had the opportunity to reconnect with Universite Gaston-Berger, the university where I studied in Saint-Louis, through a book distribution sponsored by my current nonprofit employer and a private partner, who has a major business presence in Senegal.  We are hoping to distribute about 6,000 books to the UGB and Saint-Louis communities, and it makes me so happy to be able to share books and learning with a community that taught me so much.

What advice would you give students who are interested in studying abroad in Africa or learning an African language?

Go! Studying in Africa–any part of Africa–will give you a wonderfully unique perspective on development, the world economy, social structures and history. You will be challenged in ways you never expect, and once you succeed in these every day challenges, you are a stronger, more empathetic person. Employers notice this character-building too–they recognize students who study abroad in less traditional locations as resourceful, adaptable and open-minded global citizens who aren’t afraid to try something outside the box.

Profile produced by Meagan Doll.

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