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Excellent adventure: Student sees life through Ghanaian eyes


January 06, 2011

There is a Ghanaian proverb that advises, “When you are sitting in your own house, you don’t learn anything. You must get out of your house to learn.” Vinita Quinones, a graduate student in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences social justice and human rights master’s program has seen the proof of this with her own eyes.

She literally has gotten out of her own house and learned. She has learned with a capital “L,” and the classroom was not limited to four walls – it was central Ghana; the lessons took place during a recent Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad scholarship program. Quinones was joined by fellow New College grad students Paul Bork and Ted Novak; faculty members Duku Anokye, Charles St. Clair and Les Irwin; and a group of Valley teachers who travelled to and around Ghanaian towns and villages for 28 days.

“When I enrolled in the social justice and human rights program (MASJHR), I simply imagined continuing my educational career,” said Quinones, who received her undergraduate degree in sociology in 2005 from ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on the Tempe campus. “Well, my journey of discovery took on a new dynamic and experiential dimension in Ghana. Our travels provided us the opportunity to learn about the culture, people, language, spirituality, tradition and rich history. The access to full immersion in the culture provided invaluable insight that has opened a gamut of information to be further explored and developed.”

The group landed in Ghana’s capital city of Accra, a metropolis of nearly two million people located on the Gulf of Guinea. For the next four weeks they travelled into and through Accra, Kumasi, Cape Coast and Takoradi; from these locations they ventured into neighboring sites, towns and villages. The focus of the project – “Stories from the Other Side” – was to collect interviews that would shed light on the impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that marked centuries of injustice on a global scale.

“The journey allowed us to connect historical and indigenous forms of slavery in Ghana to contemporary issues of human trafficking within the region,” said Quinones, who hopes to eventually enter the workforce as an advocate of children’s rights in a setting that addresses global issues. “As a young and aspiring human rights worker, I feel this experience has contributed to my personal and professional consciousness and my commitment to serving others.”

Quinones’ consciousness has been nurtured over a short lifetime and many miles. Born in Bloomington, Ind., she was raised in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She returned to the States in 1996 after convincing her mother to let her join her brother and sister in Arizona where her sister had enrolled at Northern Arizona University and later transferred to ASU. She had completed her high school freshman year in St. Croix, where she was active in cultural/traditional dance, including moko jumbie – stilts walking/dancing. Once landed in the Valley of the Sun, she enrolled at Tempe McClintock High School and immediately expanded her learning opportunities, participating in a business internship in the Tempe Police Criminal Investigation Division and joining such extracurricular campus groups as the Unity Club, Close Up, Black Student Union, National Art Honor Society and Capoeira. She also earned athletic letters while competing on the Chargers basketball and track and field teams.

Following her graduation from ASU in 2005, Quinones served in Honduras as a Youth Development Volunteer from 2006 to 2008. During her time in the Central America republic, she worked with youth, community leaders and educators in a variety of settings, collaborating with community members to develop a variety of service programs and helping implement programs through the local library while facilitating activities with local youth.

In Ghana, Quinones and company pursued oral histories from families left behind during the slave trade.  They familiarized themselves with the realities of human trafficking and modern-day slavery in the region.  They recorded in writing and on film the stories provided by villagers, community leaders, activists and non-governmental organizations.

They gained, said Quinones, a better understanding of the impact of the slave system on the Ghanaian people.
“During our trip we visited several historical sites – castles, forts and museums,” she noted. “These are the physical structures that are evidence of the magnitude of the slave trade, structures associated with the trade that still hold significant relevance to the nation’s identity.

“In my personal conversations with Ghanaians, it was interesting to learn about individual historical accounts, their connections to the bigger national history and the remembrance of the slave trade. The content found in the conventional educational setting and the oral family histories and traditions was like vicariously living their incredible journey. What truly captured my imagination were the connections between familial and national remembering.”

Anokye, a New College associate professor in the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, has travelled to Ghana nearly a dozen times, collecting oral histories and studying Ghanaian culture, religion, storytelling, and dance. She said the Ghana experience was a clear reflection of the MASJHR program.

“When I think of students in the MASJHR degree program, I think of activists,” said Anokye, a sociolinguist, whose research focuses on African Diaspora orality and literacy practices, folklore, discourse analysis and oral history. “These students are not waiting to graduate to become involved in making social change occur. Vinita, if she had lived in the 60s, would have been in the streets, marching and inciting to get people involved. She has very important leadership qualities that she is discovering, and the program facilitates that kind of growth and involvement.”

The trip could have a lasting impact not only on Quinones and her travel group, but also on the greater education landscape: four teachers from Betty H. Fairfax High School and another from Starlight Park Elementary School were on board and brought their own special talents to the trip. The teachers and the Ghana participants will develop K-12 curriculum materials, a monograph and a documentary video based on their research.

“The trip provided us the opportunity to collaborate closely with these amazing teachers,” said Quinones. “Our hope is that our efforts will contribute to a promotion of a global consciousness by incorporating these themes on multiple levels in the American education system. We hope that through the creation of a curriculum that embraces a global identity, future students will be able to look beyond distance and borders to embrace humanity.”

What might that curriculum look like?  Quinones offered: “I envision it as a curriculum that to some degree illustrates cultural, social and political awareness; content that provides the opportunity for students to connect personal experiences and outlook to people of different cultures and regions.”

She added, “From an MASJHR perspective I hope that in an age of increasing global ties through technology, mass media and communication, these can be tools used to increase civic and civil participation – teaching students about the realities of the world and giving them the tools to contribute to the changes they would like to see. This allows the next generation to look beyond borders to get to the core of societal ills, rather than focusing on issues from an individualistic or nationalist sense.”

At the end of the day, Quinones is grateful for the chance to experience a different culture and learn from those living it. She appreciates the full immersion that came with the summer program and looks forward to the chance – somewhere down the line – to incorporate education as a preventative mechanism to stimulate change. And she knows now the program has changed her. She also has come to expect no less from New College and the social justice and human rights program.

“What really captured my attention in New College was the human rights and advocacy component, both domestic and trans-national,” she said. “I was drawn by the opportunity to gain valuable knowledge and skills in non-profit management, and the focus on the interdisciplinary approach.

“As graduate students, we are exposed to best practices in the field from more than one discipline. It allows us to understand the issues through a broader lens. Personally, I value this approach because I need to see the bigger picture; it just illustrates the interconnectedness of what we do. It promotes a degree of flexibility and creativity in the ability to pull from a variety of resources, which helps to strengthen programs and meet the needs of the community and/or the organizations served.”

Spoken like someone who has left the house…and learned.