USA Wins Grant for West Africa Study Abroad

Posted on December 9, 2022
Joy Washington

The University of South Alabama is one of 44 universities across the country to receive $34,000 in funding from the U. S. Department of State’s Increase and Diversify Education Abroad for the U. S. Students (IDEAS) Program.

The announcement of the winners was made by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, United States Study Abroad branch and its implementing partner World Learning.

With the South Alabama IDEAS grant, the Descendants Navigate Africa program will build upon the unique connection between Benin, West Africa and Mobile, through the Clotilda, which is believed to be the last known ship to arrive in the Mobile Tensaw-Delta on the Gulf Coast with enslaved Africans.

 “We are pleased to receive this IDEAS grant.” said Shawn Dillard, interim director for the Office of International Education and Study Abroad. “This will be a hybrid virtual and in-person study abroad program focused on West Africa. The goal is to increase opportunities for less commonly traveled destinations for all students. And, this program will provide a particular focus for African American students.”

According to Dillard, the new program, which is building on a recent Fulbright Scholar in Residence award, will afford students, faculty and staff an opportunity to benefit from the expertise of African History Scholar Dr. Dieudonne Gnammankou of Benin.

“This new program will benefit the South Alabama community by providing unparalleled community engagement opportunities with Mobile’s Africatown, which was built by descendants of the Clotilde,” Dillard said. “Under the IDEAS grant, we will partner with a local Togo-based cultural exchange organization, Africa Our Home, to support and develop a low-cost study abroad experience in the region.

Kimberly Williams Pettway was instrumental in recommending and securing Gnammankou to serve as the African History scholar for the IDEAS Program. She met him while teaching a Study Abroad course in Benin, West Africa in 2017.

“I was referred to Dr. Gnammankou by a Rasta elder I met while visiting in Benin,” she said. “He and I discussed the Clotilda at that time, and he shared a wealth of knowledge, and we agreed to further collaborate. He is assisting with the Fulbright residence grant, and now he will be serving as our African History Scholar with the IDEAS Program. I believe this is the work of our ancestors, and I am simply excited that I was able to make the connections and build relationships that will benefit our students. I look forward to further collaborations since my goal is to get more African American students to West Africa.”

Students participating in the Descendants Navigate Africa program will enroll in an English composition course taught by USA Assistant Professor Dr. Kern Jackson, director of South’s African American Studies program and co-writer and co-producer of the soon-to-be-released documentary Descendants.

“The film Descendant, which explores the same Mobile and Clotilda connection, recently won a Sundance Film Festival Award,” Dillard said. “Students will collaborate with West African student counterparts in Benin, Togo and Cabo Verde countries tied to the Clotilda through culture and proximity. At its core, the IDEAS grant supports a partnership development model.”

Through the IDEAS grant there will also be an additional partnership with the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin, along with the U.S. Embassy’s Cabo Verde’s EducationUSA Advising Center. These partnerships will allow us to explore future faculty and student exchanges in the West African island nation.

Assisting Dillard with this effort is a multidisciplinary team, which includes Jackson; Dr. Rad Chaudhury, executive director of the USA Innovation in Learning Center; and Dr. Joél Lewis Billingsley, interim chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.

“For sustainability, since Study Abroad is a high-impact practice for students’ success, the IDEAS grant will build on USA’s recent Department of Education Title III goal,” said Dillard. “This means we will increase the impact by 50 percent over their baseline, which is the yearly rate second-year students participate in a high-impact practice.” 

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