When it comes to the traditional back-to-school question of “What did you do over summer break?” Lara Roemer has a pretty good answer.
Roemer, associate dean of social and business sciences and an assistant professor of political science and history at Carl Sandburg College, spent nearly six weeks in Ghana and Togo as part of a Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad grant. She joined 11 instructors from Oakton Community College, two from the College of Lake County and a Chicago-area high school teacher as they immersed themselves in the countries’ communities and cultures. Together, they explored the legacy of colonialism in the nations and the connection of the transatlantic slave trade in their history to American history.
“We were together basically all day, every day,” Roemer said. “We're talking about starting at seven o'clock in the morning and finishing at nine or 10 o'clock at night almost every day. For me, that was exactly the kind of experience I was looking for.”
Roemer applied and was selected last year to be part of the federal grant program. Long fascinated by Africa, she had traveled to the continent on multiple occasions before, but her longest previous stay was about two weeks. The length of this trip and amount of time spent with her colleagues and local guides, she said, made it unlike anything else she’d done.
"This is a very unique kind of travel experience,” Roemer said. “It was extremely rewarding to have it be structured in that kind of way. Exhausting, but very rewarding. It creates a bonding opportunity between you and your colleagues that can produce lifelong, very powerful relationships.”
While the subject matter on many days could be emotionally daunting, others included hikes, examining plants, learning about local farming and engaging with teaching professionals from the region. On one day, the group was set to meet with a paramount chief for a couple of hours. When they arrived, they learned the community had organized a celebration day for them, which turned into a seven-hour festival full of food and dancing.
“Those types of experiences were just off-the-charts exceptional and things that one would never expect to have happen,” Roemer said.
Being with instructors from different subject matter backgrounds led to a richer and more fruitful learning environment, Roemer said. One instructor from Lake County was a linguist who had taken lessons prior to the trip on native languages and helped others in the group pick up local phrases. Another was a biologist who would share in the group’s WhatsApp chat a “Species of the Day” they discovered on their daily run. The program itself was designed to connect each individual’s discipline to specific topics at some point in the trip.
“Having that variety of backgrounds and experiences altered the trip in such profoundly lovely ways. I can't even imagine having done something with just a group of political scientists,” Roemer joked. “It would have been so much more boring. We're great people, but you would have lost a lot.”
Roemer’s next step is to integrate her experiences into her teachings. She’s previously taught an African history course at Sandburg that she said would have changes to it based on her most recent adventure, and she has more primary material that she can include as part of American history classes.
“If nothing else, I now have a plethora of new resources that I'm prepared to use that have been provided to me by all my colleagues at the University of Ghana, University of Togo and other individuals that I met along the way,” Roemer said. “It's been very transformative to my curriculum already. That's really what we will be doing going forward. How can you take all these things that you have now learned and engaged with and pass them on to others so that you're impacting the broadest swath of individuals you possibly can?”
While finally returning home to her family was a welcome sight, the transition of going from Ghana to Galesburg proved to be more difficult than Roemer anticipated. For a month and a half, she and her colleagues had developed morning routines and grown accustomed to the local diet in which almost everything was fresh. (“I can't even remember a meal where I did not have fresh pineapple. That's been the hardest thing for me to have withdrawal from,” Roemer said.) Just a few days after returning to the US, she even made a trip up to Chicago to be among her travel peers one more time.
“It's a culture shock in reverse almost. That part was and continues, to some extent, to be a little bit of a challenge,” Roemer said. “It is very strange to spend that volume of time with individuals who really began as colleagues and then not be spending any time with them at all.”
Roemer hopes to pursue additional Fulbright-Hays Program opportunities in the future and encourage others — especially from rural areas or smaller institutions such as community colleges and K-12 schools — to do the same. The friendships, moments and memories from her trip are ones that she’ll carry with her for years to come.
“The people in Ghana and Togo are some of the nicest, most intelligent, kind and compassionate individuals that I've ever had the pleasure of encountering, and I've done a fair amount of travel in my lifetime,” Roemer said. “It's those connections to people that were the most impactful, the most memorable.”