Carnegie Mellon University
October 15, 2012

A Semester in Tanzania: 
CEE Undergrad Found Program She Liked, Made it Happen

A Semester in Tanzania: 
CEE Undergrad Found Program She Liked, Made it Happen

Lane and Kara, with WOMEDA staff, wear dresses made from traditional, kitenge, fabric.  (left to right: Lane, Evelyne, Lida, Kara and Twina)Lane and Kara, with WOMEDA staff, wear dresses made from traditional, kitenge, fabric. (left to right: Lane, Evelyne, Lida, Kara and Twina)

Civil Engineering major Lane Kurkjian enjoyed an unusual spring semester in her junior year. While her fellow students toted heavy backpacks around campus, she lugged rocks to build an underground community water tank; while they tackled engineering statistics, she mastered conversational Swahili; and while they casually browsed web videos at the bus stop, she hiked for twenty minutes to use the internet. Lane was one of the CE undergraduates who take advantage of CMU’s study abroad opportunities. She recently spoke with us about her semester in Kayanga, a rural town in northern Tanzania.  

CEE: You spent spring semester studying in Tanzania. Tell us about how you decided upon Tanzania, and how you went about getting there.

Lane: Tanzania sounds like a random place to study abroad. However, I’ve known a number of friends and family members who have traveled there. Tanzania also came up frequently in my search for study abroad programs because it’s a very peaceful East African country; there are few tribal issues and no religious warfare, so it’s a good place to hold programs with international students. 

I came across a flyer in Porter Hall for a global service learning program called Amezade, which is the Portuguese word for “friendship.” It’s a Pittsburgh-based organization that partners with the University of West Virginia. The flyer advertised a program that focused on sustainable development in rural Tanzania, and mentioned working with community organizations, language development, and service and experiential learning. That program attracted me right away because it placed a bigger emphasis on cultural immersion than certain other programs do. I decided the Amezade program fit my goals best, and some time later, I found myself in Kayanga.

CEE: You had a really neat take on the study abroad experience. What motivated you to depart from the traditional route and find your own program?

Lane: Well, CMU has what are called sponsored study abroad programs, which take place at educational institutions that are in a partnership with CMU. In a sponsored program, your CMU tuition funds your study abroad. Since Amazade is not a sponsored program, I was technically on a leave of absence while I was in Tanzania, so I received a transcript from West Virginia University (their partner institution), and the credits transferred through.

Because Amezade was not affiliated with CMU, I had to do a bit more legwork than usual. I wrote a study abroad proposal and sent it to the dean of the School of Engineering; that included an application for a CIT scholarship that funds non-sponsored study abroad programs. In addition, I wrote a proposal to my minor program requesting that they recognize my Tanzania course credits. Finally, I wrote a proposal to complete my depth sequence in global studies. The engineering school requires students to take three classes in one area of study, known as their depth sequence. In that proposal, I explained that while global studies was not on the list of potential depth sequence topics, I felt it made sense for me, and listed my reasons. It took some work, but it was worth it.

CEE: How did the courses you took that semester fit into your degree requirements?

Lane: They all fulfilled my elective requirements. The CE major allows for a full semester’s worth of electives, so it worked out well. One of the cool things about Carnegie Mellon is that it offers a minor in Global Engineering, and I’m part of that program. Global Engineering has no technical requirements; it’s meant to give engineering students the educational foundation for working and managing projects internationally. Some of the requirements are studying abroad, taking a language, taking a couple of regional history classes, and specializing in one area. I really appreciated this because my semester abroad fulfilled four course requirements for Global Engineering, and I hope to use that work in the future to connect my international experience to my engineering experience. 

CEE: Tell us a little bit about your program.

Lane: Our program consisted of eight students and a site director. We attended Swahili class six days a week, and had a traditional core course with readings and papers on sustainable development in rural Tanzania. We then had two reflection classes. One dealt with our field placement experience, and for that one, I wrote an ethnography about the organization I worked with in Tanzania. The other one involved reflection on a wider scale on being a globally aware citizen. The majority of our time was spent at our field placements, where we each worked with a development organization in the community three days a week. That was the most rewarding experience for me, and the experience in which I learned the most because I had to use Swahili. 

CEE: What organization did you work with in your field placement? 

Lane: I worked for WOMEDA, the Women Emancipation and Development Agency. WOMEDA’s programs are focused on women and vulnerable groups, such as children. That might mean teaching women how to read and write so they can start their own business, or getting women involved with vocational schools so they can become more financially independent. My main tangible role with them was writing an organizational policy on HIV and AIDS. A lot of my job was simply listening to learn how the organization handled different situations: I sat in on legal and social counseling appointments. This way, when it came time to write my policy, I could accurately reflect WOMEDA’s processes. 

There was one other student with me at WOMEDA, and as a capstone project we made a video about day-to-day happenings in our program. The main section of the video was on WOMEDA; we interviewed the people running the program and the people using their services, and it really showed the general vibe at the organization. The WOMEDA executive director ended up approaching us and asking to use that portion of the video for grant proposals. That was an added bonus.

CEE: How often did you find yourself using your engineering background?

Lane: The funny thing was, my work wasn’t at all engineering-related, but I looked at certain aspects of it differently because of my engineering background. For example, Amezade donated money to build an underground water tank for a girls’ boarding school, so we went to the site and helped in the manual labor side of things: constructing, moving rocks, and getting to see how they accomplish these tasks without cranes or tractors. Seeing that side of engineering was great because it was very practical and very different than ours. 

CEE: Did the trip turn out the way you thought it would?

Lane: [Laughs] I had no idea what to expect. We had received the syllabus for our classes before we arrived, and we had a general understanding of the field placement system. But I had never been to Tanzania or to East Africa. I chose to arrive two weeks before the program started, and that was the right choice; it showed me that I could manage by myself if needed, but for now, the program was going to make it easier for me. 

The trip ended up being everything that I was looking for: non-traditional study abroad, a rural lifestyle, and a new environment. We lived in a place with squat toilets, where the electricity went out every time it rained (and it was the rainy season for most of the semester, so you never had that guarantee!). We were a twenty-minute walk from an internet connection. There were no refrigerators, and all of the cooking was done on charcoal. The astounding thing for me, and the part that I learned the most from, is that everything Kayanga natives need to survive--food, water, shelter, and clothing--they acquire without electricity, which is something I think many Americans believe is impossible. That re-establishment of priorities was important to me.

CEE: It sounds like you were using a variety of skills: engineering, policy writing, and cross-cultural communication. What skill were you most excited to develop?

Lane: I was most excited to learn Swahili, and I spent a lot of my time developing that skill. We were surrounded by non-English speakers; the woman who worked at our house didn’t speak English, and at WOMEDA, the women coming in from the villages spoke only Swahili or their tribal language. I didn’t want to be the girl in the corner who they had to translate everything for; I wanted to build relationships, have a full experience and better understand my surroundings. Speaking the native language was key.

CEE: Any advice for other CE students who are thinking about studying abroad?

Lane: Do it! 

Lane and Mr. Osward Lane presents her Swahili professor and friend, Mr. Bwana Osward, a CIT t-Shirt. Along with 6 day a week instruction in Swaihili, Mr. Osward was a source for Lane to learn about the area and local culture. 
Market in Kayanga Market in Kayanga