Student Journey Series: Ashley Jackson

Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s.They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Ashley Jackson. She participated in Seattle-based community service activities led by Vicki at Lakeside School in the days before the Global Service Learning program. Read more by Ashley on PSI’s global health work here.

I’m squeezed into a one-room hair salon in Malawi, a stranger’s baby in my lap, chatting with a hairdresser, her client, and three stylish young women waiting to have their hair braided. The salon is wedged between a tailor’s shop and a vegetable stand in a dense urban market. I hold up the draft of a poster advertising contraception and ask what the women think. They take it in for a moment, then burst into a vigorous discussion of the poster and their thoughts on the barriers to contraceptive use.

Work meeting in Tanzania with colleagues from Burundi, Liberia, and Nigeria

Work meeting in Tanzania with colleagues from Burundi, Liberia, and Nigeria

Pre-testing communication materials is a part of my job at Population Services International (PSI), a nonprofit organization that seeks to make it easier for people in the developing world to lead healthier lives and plan the families they desire by marketing affordable products and services. Most of my time is focused on designing or reviewing strategies to increase access to contraception. I live in Washington, D.C., and travel frequently to countries in Africa and Asia to hold trainings and workshops, meet with staff and partners, and check up on the quality of PSI’s work.

Cameroon, 2005

Homestay in Cameroon, 2005

How did I get here? In large part, thanks to global education. During college, two semesters abroad with the School for International Training (SIT) brought me to the verdant hills of Cameroon, where I studied the determinants of condom use among youth, and the Kenyan coast, where I designed health education materials for sex workers. In the year after college, I trekked across Benin researching education reform. Each of these experiences was bewildering and illuminating, frustrating and fulfilling, mundane and transformative all at once.

Here are three reasons why I recommend global education:

  1. You learn language skills that may be more valuable than you realize. Soon after I began studying French in middle school, I regretted the decision. I wished I had chosen Spanish, the only language I could foresee myself using outside the classroom. It was not until my experiences studying in the former French colonies of Cameroon and Benin that I realized how useful French could be. French opened up numerous career paths at development organizations like PSI, which need bilingual speakers of French and English to manage projects in countries where French is the national language. I was surprised to learn some of the lowest levels of economic development and highest rates of maternal mortality are found in Francophone West Africa. Language immersion is a quick and effective way to gain some of the skills needed to contribute to solving major global problems.
  1. You develop an understanding of other cultures that goes much deeper than what you can comprehend reading a book or visiting as a tourist. My homestay families in Kenya, Cameroon, and Benin were diverse. Muslim, Christian, animist. A pair of 30-year-olds who taught their five children—and me—the latest dance moves. A polygamous chief and his three wives. A grandmother who cared for her orphaned grandchildren. Across all of these homestay experiences, I observed the rhythms of daily life, asked endless questions, and engaged in discussions about gender equality, parenting, religion, ethnicity, politics, and more. My Cameroonian host parents believed everyone has an ethical obligation to maximize the number of children they have, because each life is valuable and worth living. Their moral philosophy was so different from anything I had encountered that debating the subject expanded my thinking and strengthened my commitment to my own values. With my host families, I attended weddings, baptisms, religious services, and giant, joyous funerals unlike any I had seen before. Homestays cultivated my cross-cultural communication skills and expanded my empathy for those in other parts of the world.
  1. Host siblings in Kenya look at pictures from Seattle, 2006

    Host siblings in Kenya look at pictures from Seattle, 2006

    You explore your place in the world and build the skills to make a difference. In Cameroon and Kenya, SIT instructors engaged my group of students in examining the tensions between modern and traditional cultural practices, development theories and approaches, and history before, during, and after colonization. We used anthropological methods to gather information and systematically reflected on our own perspectives. Independent study projects provided the opportunity to investigate topics of interest to us as individuals, and to find out whether we would like to pursue careers in those fields. I arrived in Benin thinking I would have a career in education, but after volunteering on a family planning project, left with the realization that public health was a better fit for me. Furthermore, independent study projects and volunteer work abroad lent me credibility when I applied for my first job at a global health organization.

As I sit in the Malawian hair salon, taking notes on the young clients’ feedback on the poster and their fascinating views on love and condom use, I feel grateful for the global education that set me on this course.