Junior embraces culture of seaside university town in Ghana

September 27, 2011

When Clara Burgess ’13 was a senior at Westtown School on the outskirts of Philadelphia, she went on a 3-week internship to Ghana. But it wasn’t enough.

“I felt like I just stuck my toe in the water,” says Burgess, a Sociology major with plans to pursue a career in international health. “I wasn’t finished learning.”

An apartment building in Kumasi, Ghana, showing clothes drying after the residents hand washed them.

Two years later during the spring of 2011, Burgess returned to Ghana, this time for a semester-long study abroad at the University of Cape Coast in Cape Coast, Ghana. Finally, she was able to immerse in the culture, learn to speak some Fante, and study the African diaspora in both a modern and historical context.

Fueled by her keen interest in health issues and health education in developing countries, she explored Deaf Education and American Sign Language as her final research project in Ghana. Her project compared schools for the Deaf and regular public schools, and she hopes to extend those studies in McDaniel’s renowned Deaf Education program.

Clara Burgess, fifth from left, with art classmates in Ghana’s capital city, Accra.

The study abroad through SIT involved a lot of traveling, and Burgess embraced new experiences and even acquired some new skills. Strong friendships developed among the 10 participants in the program, all women from Skidmore, Vassar, UChicago, Smith and others, as well as with Ghanians who were eager to teach the Americans life lessons beyond the classroom.

A wall in northern Ghana erected to protect citizens of the town from slave traders.

“I learned how to carry a baby – and how to kill a chicken,” she says, explaining that she also made the batik fabric from which she made the pants she wears even now that she is back on campus.

Burgess smiles when she recounts her stay with a host family, a mom and 14-year-old daughter, in an apartment that had running water – sometimes – but was not uncomfortable. She washed her clothing by hand and was amused by the number of products that boldly bore the images of President Obama and his family, undoubtedly unbeknownst to him.

A waterfall in Ghana where Clara Burgess stopped with her study abroad group for a refreshing dip – and had the pleasant surprise of being able to stand underneath it.

“They feel like they know Obama since he visited Ghana,” Burgess says, pointing to a box of cookies – not just any cookies but “Obama Family Cookies” with an image of the U.S. President grinning widely.

“When I was leaving and everyone was saying good-bye, a couple of people said to me, ‘Please greet Obama for me.’”