Harvard University’s Institute for Economic Research spent eleven long years studying ethnic groups. Their main research question was: If you picked two people at random in any nation and asked them their ethnicity, what are the chances that they would give a different answer? In total, they looked at 650 different ethnic groups in 190 countries around the world.
Their findings? According to Blake (2013), the top 20 most ethnically diverse nations in the world are all located in Africa.
Harvard just confirmed what many of us have known for years. Linguistically, ecologically, anthropologically -- any way you look at it, Africa is one of the most diverse land masses on the planet. And a diverse place makes for a diverse and fascinating location to study abroad.
If a student decides to study abroad in Africa, their first step may be to visit their Study Abroad Office on campus. However, more often than not, they will start by conducting a web-based search to learn more about program offerings. Therefore, in order to conduct research for this article, the author followed in the footsteps of the student and used a web search to gather some basic information.
A simple search can tell volumes about who is choosing to study in Africa, what they’re studying while they are there, how they’re studying (i.e. what type of program providers), and why they chose Africa.
Unrealistic Concerns Are Hurting Numbers
Across the board, enrollment numbers in study abroad programs in Africa have dropped over the last few years. Students are worried about their health and safety.
While these are extremely important considerations when making the decision to study abroad, some claims about what's happening in Africa are wildly distorted. Based on a conversation with an admissions team at a prominent study abroad provider, we compiled a list of the top concerns that are being expressed by their prospective students. Let’s look at these concerns, as well as the reality behind them.
1. Health risks
Many enrollment dips in recent months were due to the Ebola epidemic. While this caused the number of students going to West African countries to drop, it also has had an impact on the number of students studying outside of the affected region.
Even though Ebola didn't reach South Africa, concern has been expressed over studying there. The distance between these two countries is well over 3,000 miles. This is longer than the distance between Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.
As this has been so prevalent in our thoughts as of late, a quick crash course on the Ebola virus is in order.
Ebola does not spread by being near an infected person. It does spread by being in direct contact with bodily fluids of someone who has it.
Therefore, the people who are most at risk are those that are intimately close to a carrier, or a healthcare worker who is treating a carrier. If you don’t fall under one of these categories, you probably are not at risk. Furthermore, if someone is not currently displaying symptoms of Ebola, they can’t spread it to you. The major symptoms include fever, headache, muscle ache, joint pain, sore throat, and general weakness.
It’s also important for us to know where Ebola poses a threat. Right now, it’s probably not smart to plan a trip to Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone. (Though, as of March 5, 2015 Liberia has been declared Ebola-free.) But what about other countries in Africa and beyond?
Senegal, Nigeria, and Spain all had reported cases, but have now been declared Ebola-free. Technically speaking, well over 42 days (which is the length of two incubation periods) have elapsed since the last day that anyone had contact with a confirmed Ebola case. The cases that were brought to the United States were considered to be within an area with “effective control measures,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In a Salon.com article from last September, a father writes about his daughter’s decision to study in Senegal. Though he is a concerned and loving parent, he did not panic. He explains by saying “...here’s the crucial thing. The study abroad program is not panicking. Nor is the Senegalese government panicking, nor the family that my daughter is living with” (Leonard, 2014). The health and safety of students are not just a priority of parents, but also of program providers, and even governments.
What does this mean for you? As long as you avoid those three countries -- Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone -- you are NOT at risk for contracting Ebola.
2. Geopolitical risks
Another area of concern keeping students from having a fabulous study abroad experience in Africa is in the geopolitical arena. Are terrorists and political unrest a concern? If you go to Africa, do you need to fear for your life?
In short, no. The two groups that most people cite when expressing their concern are the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Shabaab. To begin with, ISIS is named so for a reason. Their main sphere of operation is in the area between Syria’s Mediterranean coast and just south of Baghdad. The distance between this area and the nearest spot on the Africa continent is over 700 miles. This is close to the distance that separates Chicago from New York.
However, most study abroad participants will likely be closer to 4,000 miles away from the center of ISIS’s activities.
As for al-Shabaab, their main center of operation is in Somalia. The U.S. State Department warns against travel to Somalia. Heed this warning. Study abroad providers that have programs in the area may be modifying their excursions. For example, SIT Study Abroad runs a program in Kenya, a country that borders Somalia. The program is still currently in operation. The only modification is that SIT students don’t travel to the coastal areas.
It is guaranteed that study abroad providers take the health and safety of their participants very seriously. Therefore, if they are still running their programs, they are doing so for a reason. They have done their research and remain in close communication with their contacts on the ground to make sure that their students have the best -- and the safest -- study abroad experience possible.
Who Studies Abroad in Africa?
“Students don’t go to Africa to ‘study abroad’,” said the admissions counselor of a reputable third party provider. “They go to Africa because they’re interested in the continent, in the cultures, in wildlife.”
For most students who decide on Africa, the decision is based mostly on subject and geography, and they're searching that way. “If you want to study Arabic and Middle Eastern studies in Africa, it’s easy to refine your search,” said the counselor.
But what about a certain type of person who chooses to study in Africa? Does it take someone more hardy, more outdoorsy than others?
In effect, no. Africa may be a diverse continent, but so too are the people who choose to study there. A person who goes to Senegal with CIEE to study language and culture in Dakar is going to have a very urban experience, with access to French food, gourmet coffee, and even ice cream -- if they want it.
On the other hand, if a student decides to study biodiversity with SIT in Madagascar, their experience is going to be more rural and rugged. The important thing to note here is that both of these experiences represent the “real Africa,” both are as valid as the other and both have important takeaways to offer the student. This in itself can be a student’s first lesson about the African continent -- the disparity of rural versus urban, one country or region versus another.
One theme that consistently presented itself in students' reviews of programs in Africa was the degree to which the students were expected to be, and in fact were, independent. Perhaps this can shed some insight into who studies in Africa. One reviewer who participated in a CIEE program in South Africa writes "I learned to be independent in a way I never knew I needed or wanted to be." Another student writes that while learning about the history and the culture of the host country, she became "more confident and adventurous."
Perhaps, though, more important than asking who studies in Africa, asking what people study can be a more telling question.
What Are Students Studying in Africa?
With study abroad becoming more and more the norm, there is a surfeit of study abroad program providers. This also means that students’ options are nearly limitless. That being said, certain subjects are certainly studied more often than others. The area of the arts -- be that art history, music, or dance -- is by far the most popular course of study in Africa, represented by almost 20 percent of the sample population.
However, the African continent also provides rich resources to study business, political science, environmental studies, and languages, just to name a few. Opportunities to study business abound (with about 7 percent of the sample population choosing this subject), particularly in relation to women and gender studies (i.e. women’s cooperatives).
When it comes to language, because colonial language is not wedded to a country’s identity, a student can go from zero to fluent in a language such as Portuguese or French without ever stepping foot in Portugal or France. This could account for its popularity -- almost 13 percent of the sample population went to Africa to study languages. Similarly, Africa provides fascinating case studies to examine political science (about 8 percent) from a post-conflict or a transitional perspective.
The chart below shows the major courses of study offered by various program types that facilitate study abroad in Africa.
How Are Students Studying in Africa?
The chart below shows a cross section of programs used by participants that studied abroad in Africa. While the range of findings included service-learning programs, direct enrollment, and university programs, the search indicated that overall, third party providers played the biggest role in getting students to Africa.
This is fairly unique to the region. While many universities have direct relationships with host universities or institutions in Europe and other traditional study abroad destinations, they don't have similar agreements with institutions in Africa as often. Therefore, universities rely on third party providers, which have a longer history working and building relationships in Africa, to get their students to the continent.
The jury is still out regarding which type of program is best. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Some say that while direct enrollment gives the student the most immersive experience possible, direct enrolls can, in some cases, actually displace a local student from studying at that university.
Third party providers are generally known for being fairly costly, and yet it’s these programs that often have strong connections with the communities to which they send students. This means vast experience, a wealth of knowledge, and most importantly, acceptance from the local community. Service learning programs can give students the feel-good experience of giving back to the communities that educate them, yet some criticize the nature of these programs and question whether the participants are actually helping.
Why Are Students Studying in Africa?
The reasons why students choose to study in an African country instead of a more traditional study abroad destination are as varied as the students themselves. Many cite the fact that African countries are “different” than what they're used to. Africa is considered exotic and unique, and students who go there want a truly exceptional study abroad experience.
Further, they're looking for adventure and a challenge. Other students cite commonalities they share with African countries as their motivation. For instance, one can study a Western or Romance language, such as French, while at the same time learning a local language to enrich their experience.
Below is a list that illustrates some of the more common reasons cited to focus on Africa for their education abroad. This information was collected from several third party provider sites, including CIEE and SIT Study Abroad, as well as from Study Abroad 101, a site that allows participants to review programs. Specifically, this information reflects reviews that were written about student motivations for going, as well as what they got out of their study abroad experience.
Top Reasons for Studying in Africa
From a sample of 12 students who studied abroad in Africa, here are the reasons they stated for choosing Africa over a more traditional destination.
- More challenge leads to a richer experience
- More adventure
- Rich history, culture, and wildlife
- The diversity of languages and people
- It's different than my home country or institution
- I can focus on service learning
The Happy Student
They say that when a student goes to study abroad in Asia, they come back more spiritual. When a student goes to study in South America, they return more politically conscious. And when they study abroad in Africa, they come back laughing. Studying abroad will be one of the most transformative experiences you have during your college years. It can also be the happiest. Study in Africa.
- Blake, M. (May 17, 2013). Worlds Apart: Uganda tops list of most ethnically diverse countries on Earth while South Korea comes bottom. Retrieved from Daily Mail.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (March 13, 2015). 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa – Outbreak distribution map [Data file]. Retrieved from CDC.
- Institute for the Study of War. (September 12, 2014). [Map illustration]. Map of ISIS Activity. Retrieved from The Week.
- Leonard, A. (September 5, 2014). My Daughter’s Ebola Scare: Why we’re not ready to panic (yet). Retrieved from Salon.