Alumni Spotlight: Otto Nagengast

Otto is an economics major at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. He grew up in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and graduated from United World College USA in Montezuma, New Mexico. His go to dance move is a bad imitation of the smooth moves of his friend Alejandro from Venezuela.

Volunteering in Cameroon

Why did you pick this program?

I decided to come to Middlebury, in part, because of the program's location in Cameroon. I had spent time in Africa before and knew that I wanted to study abroad there during college. The Middlebury program in Cameroon is amazing for the following reasons:

  • It is in French, (which makes it a two-for-one).
  • You have tons of freedom.
  • You study at a local university.
  • You have the opportunity to live with a local family through homestay.
  • Cameroon is a wonderful country.
  • The people of Cameroon are wonderful.

What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?

First I ask them, "why do you want to go abroad?". I think having a positive experience is all about your mindset. A lot of people have a set of expectations about what they're going to experience and learn when abroad, and this just sets them up for disappointment.

There are tons of great reasons to go abroad, but I find some of them to be quite vague - don't get me wrong, it does not make them any less great. What they all have in common, though, is that they enable you to roll with whatever you find when you get there. For example, in my book, saying "I want to go abroad to be someplace different" is better reason to go abroad than "I want to learn about why Africa is so impoverished."

In short, be careful about going abroad with a narrow objective in mind. In the end, I think you'll learn more if you just go in with an open mind and delve into whatever presents itself to you instead of trying to make it through a detailed list of "things to learn."

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Focus on the positives and forget the negatives. Yaoundé is full of little things that can really, really annoy you: traffic, rain, crowded taxis, the heat, people heckling you, not being understood because of your accent, stomach bugs.

Some days this stuff will just keep coming and coming and at the end of the day, you just want to go home and be left alone. This is perfectly fine. But don't allow all of the annoyances to define your experience. Like I said before, roll with it.

Just let go and embrace the fact that you are experiencing a slice of the human experience that you never would have if you had stayed at home.

This is easier said than done, but you get better at it with time. At the beginning, a day in Yaoundé will be frustrating, annoying, and disheartening, but if you keep your head up, you will come to not only roll with it, but, oddly, love it. By the end, I came to feed off the energy of the city. Now that I'm back in quiet Vermont, I miss Yaoundé - traffic, smog, heckling and all.

What's your favorite story to tell about your time abroad?

I don't have one story from my time abroad that stands out in particular. I think my favorite thing to talk about from my time abroad is the people I met. I had friends who were car mechanics, young guys trying to get educated in the West, up-and-coming business moguls, bar owners, corner shop owners, NGO directors, and countless other people from diverse and interesting backgrounds.

Through these people, I got to appreciate a side of Africa that is so often lost when we study it in the West. Africa is full of driven, ambitious, talented people who want to work hard and get ahead. I want to go back to Africa not to "help" but to be closer to the imminent transformation of the continent - a transformation that has already begun and will only accelerate in the coming years.

Otto's Thoughts on Safety in Cameroon:

The question of whether or not it's safe is one of the biggest that arises when considering studying abroad in a place like Cameroon. Unfortunately, too many people think the answer to this question is "No." But this is not the case. I did not feel that my safety was in danger a single time in Cameroon.

Granted, I am a male, and I know that this removes a host of potential problems related to my safety abroad. However, I think by and large, people think Africa in general is far more dangerous than it actually is. Please, before you think that it's too dangerous to go to a place like Cameroon, find someone who has been there and ask them. I bet you'll be surprised to find that many places that appear quite dangerous because of what we hear about them in the West are actually quite safe.