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International experience inspires Blugolds to make change in the world

| Judy Berthiaume

Think the research paper or science project that your professor assigned is challenging?

Imagine if your homework is to change the world — or at least your corner of it.

That is the assignment given to UW-Eau Claire students and faculty by their instructor during an immersion in West Africa, which included 10 days at the Tostan Training Center in Senegal.

“A message Tostan’s founder, Molly Melching, stressed repeatedly was the power one individual can have to change their community and the world,” says Holly Hassemer, an academic advisor at UW-Eau Claire and co-leader of the immersion in Senegal. “She pushed us to develop our own power to enact positive change in our communities. We actually left the training with ‘homework’ to spread the Tostan approach to community-led development back in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and beyond.”


Larrick Potvin was among the Blugolds who spent their Winterim exploring a new culture in Senegal.

The Blugolds who immersed themselves in Senegal say they are up to the challenge.

“Since returning to the United States, I have never felt so excited and motivated to become a social worker within my own community,” says Erica Bergmann, a social work major from St. Croix Falls. “This experience has made me question what I want to do in my future career because I am so moved by the work of Tostan. I would love to work in a similar setting.”

Bergmann was among the 19 UW-Eau Claire students who traveled to Senegal in January as part of an international immersion program focused on community-led development training.

The UW-Eau Claire students included a number of social work majors, but also students studying kinesiology, elementary education, and communication sciences and disorders.

“What I gained from this experience is priceless and something I will carry with me forever,” Bergmann says. “It gave me a new perspective on life that you cannot be taught by sitting in a classroom.

“The experience challenged my beliefs — and dance skills — on multiple occasions, and in the end I feel that I have been humbled by my time in Senegal.”

During the immersion, the UW-Eau Claire team spent four days in Dakar, Senegal, where they visited the U.S. Embassy and met the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal.

The embassy visit focused on the role that the United States plays in the supporting the people of Senegal, while also advancing U.S. interests.

The group also visited Goree Island before traveling to Tostan, where they spent 10 days in training.

Tostan is an organization that helps African communities identify a community vision — often related to enhancing human rights such as education or access to health care — and supports the communities as they develop leadership teams that help them realize their vision. 

The UW-Eau Claire team's training focused on integrating human rights into the process of developing a vision for a community, such as the campus community, and then ensuring that people within the community have the knowledge and skills to implement the vision, says Dr. Leah Olson-McBride, professor of social work and co-leader of the immersion.

The Blugolds were the first university students to complete the training, Olson-McBride says, noting that past trainees were primarily professionals working in international development, especially in Africa.

The UW-Eau Claire students and faculty were fortunate that Molly Melching, the founder of Tostan, personally led their training, Hassemer says.

With Melching as their guide, students learned the Tostan curriculum of human rights and community-led development, but also about the personal journey of one person who has been instrumental in a social movement, Hassemer says.

Melching’s story, the students say, was a powerful reminder that every person has the ability to make change in the world.

“Molly created her own legacy and has impacted thousands of lives through her work,” Bergmann says.

Their training included visits to villages that have been transformed by the Tostan program, giving students an up-close look at the impact the program has on individuals and communities.

It also gave students an opportunity to learn from — rather than about — people whose cultures are different from their own, Olson-McBride says.

“It was incredible to go through the modules of Tostan as American students, and then see how the same concepts that we were learning about transferred into Senegalese villages,” Bergmann says. “Seeing the positive impact and the respect that everyone has for Tostan was inspiring.”

The personal stories shared by villagers whose lives were changed because of Tostan was a highlight of the immersion program, says Larrick Potvin, a senior social work major from Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.

For example, one woman shared her story of traveling to India to become a solar electrical engineer, even though she could not speak or read the language in that country.

“It was eye-opening to me that she learned that through colors because there was a language barrier,” Potvin says. “I know if I was put into a place where I couldn’t read or speak the language, I would not be able to learn how to work on solar panels.”

Her story, he says, is an example of how the Senegalese people find a way forward, often by coming together to overcome challenges.

Their spirit of collaboration, along with their kindness and generosity, is inspiring him to think more carefully about how he lives his life, Potvin says.

“When we give peace and show respect, then that is how you are measured, not by how much money or level of education you have,” Potvin says. “The people of Senegal have a limitless amount of love and peace in their hearts. Their culture and the way they interact with each other is so amazing. No matter the situation, they always envision how they can work together to make it better.”

For Potvin, having the opportunity to explore the culture in Senegal and interact with the Senegalese villagers was especially meaningful because of his interest in learning more about Africa than is taught in schools or portrayed in the media.

“For many African-Americans, we don’t know our heritage or where we originate from in Africa,” Potvin says. “All we learn about in schools is how slaves came from Africa. For me, to be able to travel to this specific part of the world and learn about the history and culture was the eye opening and rewarding experience of a lifetime.”

That experience has him considering how he best can make a difference in the world after he graduates.

“I am so motivated to look into foreign social work or how I can have influence on the world as a social worker,” Potvin says. “I don’t have to be limited to working just in the United States of America; I can go anywhere and share the same amount of love and peace that I was gifted while in Senegal.”

Loralei Zimbauer, a junior organizational communication and religious studies major from Stevens Point, also says her experiences during Winterim are influencing her thinking about her career.

Before the immersion, Zimbauer had no idea what she wanted to do after graduation.

In Senegal, she discovered new ideas and concepts, which have given her some direction as she thinks about her future career.

The work done by Tostan is so impressive that it inspired Zimbauer to consider working for a nonprofit organization that helps make positive change in communities, either close to home or in another part of the world.

“After going to Senegal, and seeing what the Tostan Training Center does, I would love to have a part in an organization that impacts people in the way that Tostan impacts people around Africa,” Zimbauer says. “I also was introduced to the Peace Corps while I was in Senegal, which sparked an interest. I’m now very interested in working for some sort of organization that helps communities.”

While important, potential career paths are not the only important discoveries she made while in Senegal, Zimbauer says.

Through the Tostan training, she found the confidence to talk about some difficult personal struggles, as well as the inspiration to reflect on some of her values and life choices.

Finding her voice and the strength to think differently about her future is empowering, she says.

“I have a better idea of who I am now,” Zimbauer says. “Immersion experiences like this one push you out of your comfort zone, and help you to grow and learn so much about yourself.”

“This experience changed my life. It gave me a new perspective on the world, as well as my life, making me feel like a completely new person.”

Top photo caption: A Winterim immersion program took a group of students and faculty to Senegal.