Editor's Note: Senior Meaghan McGovern studied and served in East Africa over each of the past two summers. Below is a story featuring her work and experiences during her time abroad.
Oprah chartered a school for disadvantaged young women in South Africa. Jane Goodall conducted groundbreaking research that impelled sweeping conservation and animal welfare reforms in Tanzania. Yes, even Brad and Angelina adopted one of their now six children from an orphanage in Ethiopia.
Countless individuals - celebrities and civilians alike - are performing laudable acts every day to better the lives of the African people. The University of Richmond has fielded no shortage of these individuals, with Spider Track & Field seniorserving as one such glowing example.
McGovern has spent the past two summers studying and volunteering in Africa as part of her International Studies degree. In the spirit of Goodall, she spent the summer of 2010 studying wildlife management and land use planning in rural Tanzania. McGovern's studies during that first summer, a significant portion of which involved field research at national parks, were centered on important human-wildlife conflict and land use issues that have become ever more consequential in the broader scope of modern African politics and intercontinental relations.
The North Kingstown, R.I., native's second summer was a considerable change of course. After "falling in love" with the country the previous year, an impassioned McGovern returned in 2011 to volunteer at a Tanzanian orphanage through the non-governmental organization (NGO) Cross Cultural Solutions.
The orphanage's urban setting in the city of Moshi was a far cry from the campsite on which she lived the summer before. And whereas she was surrounded by American professors and same-aged peers in 2010, McGovern was now fully immersed in the Tanzanian culture as an instructor of anywhere between 12 and 26 students between the ages of two- and 12-years-old.
While "culture shock" may not be an apt description for what she encountered her second summer, McGovern certainly did not have much time to prepare for those few months. "I didn't really know what to expect," she says. "They give you your placement two days before you leave, so I knew I was going somewhere in the Kilimanjaro area. I wasn't sure what I would be doing, and when you get there they just kind of lead you through it."
However, it was McGovern who would soon be doing the leading in Moshi. The rising senior - accustomed to serving as a leader among her close-knit corps of Spider throwers - became an admired instructor and respected figure around the orphanage. Given her affable nature and genuine love for working with children, this was never in doubt.
Having made a concerted effort to learn Swahili, it also helped that McGovern was able to converse with her children and the other adults. She acknowledges the language barrier can serve as a hindrance to not only working with those in the community, but also to forming meaningful relationships with them. "I think they were surprised when I came in the first day, could speak Swahili and knew a little bit about the culture, whereas you had other volunteers who were coming in as volunteers who simply wanted to go to Africa and help," she explains. "They seemed surprised that someone came over and knew something. This allowed me to actually establish a good relationship with my kids because I could speak with them."
McGovern was able to cover an array of subject matter with her students that included the alphabet, grammar and math, utilizing various techniques that ranged from crafts to sing-alongs and Bingo. Incentives like soccer and other outdoor games were also employed.
As the summer progressed, McGovern's effectiveness in the classroom had become quite palpable. One success story readily stands out in her mind. "One of the little boys, Awazi, eventually learned to write his name," she reminisces with a smile and twinkle of unmistakable affection in her eyes. "At the beginning, he couldn't even identify which letters were which. And at the end he was writing his name on everything that he could find."
McGovern is quick to concede that her students were not the only ones receiving an education during their time together. She learned a great deal during her time with the children and others in the community, noting that one of her greatest takeaways is the African people's love of one another and of life - concepts which may appear cliché but that some might suggest have become adulterated to those of us living in more developed countries given the frenetic, materialistic and generally multifarious nature that has come to define our lives.
"I think many people assume that everyone over there [Africa] is unhappy and impoverished and that it's miserable," says McGovern. "The orphanage that I worked at may not have been as economically well off as they would have liked, but they just had so much love... Love is one of the biggest things in life, and you can't grow or progress as a person without it. Money doesn't buy you happiness."
Despite the city's larger population, McGovern adds that a strong sense of community prevailed in Moshi. "People were a lot more open," she says. "They're very welcoming and very nice people. They will welcome you into their home and to meet their family. You really just became a part of the community."
McGovern will attempt to introduce this same feeling of community in her classroom this coming year as a member of Teach for America in Charlotte, N.C. While in a slightly more familiar setting, if this past summer is any indication, she is certainly well on her way to a continued record of impactful and inspiring mentorship to the younger generation.
Before she begins her new life as a college graduate and middle school teacher, though, McGovern will travel to Jacksonville, Fla., this month to compete in the NCAA Preliminary Rounds. Having set the school record and won the conference title in the hammer throw at the Atlantic 10 Championship earlier this month, she has already accomplished what she initially set out to do this season. This month's East Region meet will simply allow her to further cement her standout status within the Richmond Track & Field annals and add to the finer and much more far-reaching example she has set forth as a Spider student-athlete abroad.