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Out of Africa: Community Engagement and Research by W&M Psychology Faculty and Students

Community Engagement in Kenya

            Last January Professor Cathy Forestell traveled to Kenya for two weeks with W&M students, Sam Quinn (’13), Graham Nelson (’13), Griffin Stevens (’14), Olivia Shuck (’13), Abhi Goyal (’14) and Ryan Boles (’15), who were part of the Kenya Sustainable Village Project (KSVP). KVSP is sponsored by Branch Out Alternative Breaks at William & Mary.  Through its community engagement, KVSP provides students with the valuable experience of learning about Kenyan culture and service learning in Nyumbani Village, about three hours west of Nairobi.

            Group Picture in KenyaThis area, has been heavily impacted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Consequently, many children in the Kitui province have been affected by this disease. After the death of their parents, many children were forced to either become heads of households or depend on their elderly grandparents who are also destitute following the death of their wage-earning adult children. Nyumbani was designed to help meet the basic needs of these marginalized youth and elderly.

            Nyumbani Village is operating at capacity with approximately 1000 orphans and 100 grandparents.  The village consists of three schools, a medical clinic, worship center and several other community buildings. Using Western technology, the villagers are working to attain self-sufficiency, and provide programs to teach the children necessary values and skills to eventually leave the village as young adults to live healthy productive lives.  

            During their visit to the village, KVSP worked on several projects that included tree planting and an after-school program for teenagers.  Next year the team will continue their community engagement as they collaborate with village members to develop a sustainable project that will focus on helping teens develop effective life skills as they prepare for their departure from the village.

Combining Community Engagement with Research throughout Africa

Over the past five years, under the guidance of Professor Janice Zeman, five undergraduate students have integrated summer service learning trips to Ghana with child development research. Four of these students were William and Mary Monroe Scholars who were able to go on these trips due to the financial assistance provided from the Children in RwandaMonroe Scholar program.  Diana Morelen (‘08) was the first of Zeman’s students to embark on this cross-cultural work. Diana went to Kpando, Ghana where she helped in an orphanage and also began preliminary work examining Ghanian children’s emotional development.  Ellen Anderson (‘10) continued this work in a suburban school outside of Accra, the capital of Ghana.  She helped to teach elementary-school-age children and also interviewed them about the ways in which they managed their feelings of sadness and anger.  Back in Williamsburg, both students interviewed a comparison group of children from the public schools and based their Honors theses on the cross-cultural comparisons of these two samples.

After hearing the interesting and intriguing stories from Diana and Ellen, Professor Zeman decided that she needed to see first-hand the types of communities in which these children lived and how their social contexts influenced children’s emotional development and psychological functioning.  Through the financial assistance of William and Mary’s Reves Center for International Studies, she was able to visit the orphanage and suburb in which Diana and Ellen had volunteered.  She also travelled to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya to supplement the data set by adding a high risk population of children (those who had witnessed post-election violence) in order to understand how African cultural differences may impact children’s developing abilities to manage their emotions and the links to depression and aggression.  Three other students, Elise Turner (’11), Emily Brown (’12) and Allison Gibbs (’11) also went to Ghana to volunteer in orphanages and continued to expand on questions initiated in the first Ghana studies.  Through this integration of service learning and research experiences, the culmination of these efforts resulted in a publication in a peer-reviewed journal and presentations at local William and Mary undergraduate conferences and at several international conferences.

Most recently in October of 2012, Zeman and graduate student, Jennifer Poon, were invited by UCLA law professor, Richard Steinberg, to join his group funded by the UCLA Sanela Diana Jenkins Human Rights Project, to investigate the factors explaining why ex-combatants in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo decide to lay down their arms and reintegrate into society.  Zeman and Poon interviewed Congolese and Rwandan ex-combatants at a United Nations-run Disarmament, Demobilization, Repatriation, Resettlement, and Reintegration (DDR/RR) camp in Goma, DRC to begin an exploration of the types of psychological factors that may be involved in the resilience of these individuals.

These efforts by William and Mary psychology faculty and students in Africa and other research now being conducted in Poland by Professors John Nezlek and Joanna Schug  represent an exciting  change in research focus. This interest in cross cultural research and service aligns with the College’s strategic goal of increasing emphasis on globalization and internationalization.