Appalachian State University students delve into sustainability program in Malawi

Now in its third year, Appalachian State University’s Sustainable Development and Social Entrepreneurship in Malawi study abroad program helps participants to expand their worldview.

“Sending students to Malawi opens their eyes to a reality that can seem distant and far too strange to relate to when seen in a news story or a documentary,” said Meredith Church, the International Programs Coordinator for the Walker College of Business at ASU. “Meeting people face to face, seeing the hills and fields firsthand, diving in to a project with a community on the other side of the world; all of these experiences can change a student’s frame of reference.”

The Malawi program is the brainchild of Church, whose husband is a cofounder of World Camp, a nonprofit that provides HIV prevention education in Malawi. Students first take preparatory classes at ASU to introduce them to the local culture and history. Then, the students spend two weeks in Africa, including visits to the capital city of Malawi, Lilongwe, Lake Malawi, Wimbe village and a photo safari in Zambia.

“Our most important project is a partnership with Mchezi Community-Based Organization, a village lying just outside the capital city where students stay with families and work on a project identified by the community leaders,” Church said.

Appalachian State University is located in Boone, N.C., and has over 17,000 students in undergraduate and graduate programs, with over 100 majors offered. While all majors can participate in the classes and the trip to Africa, most are from the Walker College of Business. The courses focus on sustainability because the country relies on agriculture, and solutions for Malawians problems need to take their lifestyle into account.

“Roads in disrepair, a reliance on corn monoculture, overburdened schools and teachers, a dearth of medical professionals, a population struggling to handle the continuing HIV/AIDS epidemic,” Church said, “all of these issues make Malawi an important place to focus the energy and creativity of university students with a desire to make a difference in the world.”

And according to Church, most students report a huge change in perspective after returning from the trip.

“I am surprised each year by the impact of the program on students,” she said. “As Ethan Herman, one of our first participants put it – ‘Once you’ve seen the poorest of the poor with your own eyes, you see the world in a different light.’”

While the students are certainly changed by the experience, it’s more difficult to quantify the impact on the local communities in Malawi.

“I know that with such a short amount of time there, it is hard to make a big splash and I believe it would be a bit unrealistic to hope that we could,” Church said. “However, as part of a larger effort with World Camp and with our ongoing partnership with Mchezi CBO, we will have contributed to projects who have feet on the ground and who can take what we provide and put it to good use.”

ASU encourages and values these experiences that expand the reach of its students and allow them to participate in a globalized world, Church said. And the value of a study abroad experience like this can’t be overstated.

“If you never step out of your own cultural context, you don’t truly realize that you have one (a context, that is),” she said. “You don’t know that others view the world in ways that vary greatly from your own. Being able to take a broader perspective opens up new possibilities for responding to life and to issues that you see in society. Not only that, but seeing the humanity in people very different from oneself is an important ingredient in creating a more tolerant and humane world, something we desperately need.”

This May, the program will send students to Malawi for the third year in a row. To see more about program specifics and past students’ experiences, check out http://today.appstate.edu/malawi/.