Immersive Learning

International student Eunice Umubyeyi ’21 discovered an interest in Senegal at Muhlenberg and then traveled there as part of a short-term study-abroad course.

By: Meghan Kita  Thursday, March 21, 2019 02:38 PM

Eunice Umubyeyi ’21 in Senegal as part of the Muhlenberg Integrated Learning Abroad (MILA) course called Culture, Media and Social Movements in Senegal

In January, the Muhlenberg Integrative Learning Abroad (MILA) course called Culture, Media and Social Movements in Senegal went on its culminating 11-day journey to the west African country. For Eunice Umubyeyi ’21, a computer science major with a minor in French and francophone studies, the short-term study-abroad experience was a dream she didn’t realize she had until her second semester at Muhlenberg.

Umubyeyi, a SHE-CAN scholar from Rwanda, took Introduction to Francophone Studies with Associate Professor of French Eileen McEwan last spring. Each student had to choose a French-speaking country and follow the current events there throughout the semester. Umubyeyi chose Senegal because her high-school counselor had studied there and spoken highly of it. Near the end of the semester, the class got a brief overview of the history of French-speaking African countries, including Senegal.

“We learned about this group called Y'en a Marre: It’s a group of young people who want to make Senegal better,” says Umubyeyi. (“Y'en a marre” is a French expression that means “fed up,” and McEwan describes the group as a “hip-hop-based social movement.”) “There’s so much corruption going on in the government, and Y'en a Marre came together and wanted to make things better for the country.”

Around the same time, McEwan and her husband, Associate Professor of Media & Communication Paul McEwan, were holding an information session for their Senegal MILA course, which Eileen encouraged Umubyeyi to attend. When Umubyeyi learned that the class’s final project would involve collaborating with members of Y'en a Marre in person, she decided she had to be part of it. To help make that happen, she worked as a summer tour guide at Muhlenberg and started a GoFundMe campaign. The Office of Global Education also offered her support from the Peyton Helm Study Abroad Fund and the David Amdur Fund.

During the fall semester, Umubyeyi and her eight classmates took a deep dive into the history, culture and politics of Senegal, so that by the time the group arrived in Dakar on January 2, they were primed with a semester’s worth of background knowledge. Umubyeyi, though, had something else: the ability to communicate fluently. She grew up speaking French, which meant she was able to direct taxi drivers, haggle with street vendors and bond with her host family.

“We had dinner together at the table and would spend hours and hours talking,” she says, noting that many of her classmates were only able to exchange a few words with their hosts. “I feel like I made so many more connections and deeper connections with the people in Senegal, and I learned more.”

Umubyeyi was also better able to connect with the people who drew her to the country in the first place: the members of Y’en a Marre. The class spent time shooting a music video for two of the group’s members and had a conversation with one of its founders, a man named Thiat. “He wanted us to be a part of the group and help us understand why he’s doing what he’s doing,” Umubyeyi says. “It was just so great, the passion that he has for what he’s doing.”

And, the trip afforded her an opportunity to see her home country in a new light. “When I’m here in the U.S., people say, ‘Tell me about Rwanda, tell me about the genocide.’ That’s the only thing,” she says. “In Senegal, people were like, ‘Rwanda, it’s so clean and so peaceful. Tell me about the president.’ They take it as a role model country. It made me so proud, and I appreciated my country even more.”

Thiat was especially interested—to the point where he was taking notes. “To have someone in front of him from Rwanda who could talk about the experience there, that was gold,” Paul says. “He teaches us a lot, and this was a chance for him to get something in return.”

That discussion was one of many highlights from what Umubyeyi describes as “the very best trip I’ve ever had.” She said learning about the country for a semester before traveling there made the experience so much more rich and rewarding: “You are aware of things that are happening there, and all that’s missing is for you to experience it.”