Gambian visit gives Norwich students
a lesson in relative values © July 24, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich Professor Diane Byrne and student Ashley Potvin stand before a class of fifth-graders at the Baku Basic Primary School during a trip to Gambia in May 2009.

photo courtesy of Diane ByrneNorwich Professor Diane Byrne and student Ashley Potvin stand before a class of fifth-graders at the Baku Basic Primary School during a trip to Gambia in May 2009.

For Americans, a pencil is useful for marking nail holes or tallying golf scores. But in the Republic of The Gambia, the simple tool of wood and graphite has far greater powers, as Norwich University student Brittni Bartholomew learned on a trip to the country in western Africa.

Offering a young Gambian girl a pencil, the Class of 2011 Corps of Cadet member from Bethlehem, N.Y., immediately caused a clamor in the girl’s family, who asked for more pencils. They were so happy, family members gave Bartholomew a bag of fruit.

Later that week, Bartholomew gave a pencil to a boy still too young for school, and asked him to keep it a secret.

The Gambians may not have much, but they are truly grateful for what they do have and they still love life.

~ Emily Shapiro,
psychology student

“But the other kids soon found out and came running over, jumping up and down for me to give them a pencil,” she said. “A pencil puts lights in everyone’s eyes. ... An education has much more value in the long run than a candy bar or a pair of jeans, and I think that, in their minds, the pencils mean going to school.”

Education goes both ways, as Bartholomew and other students from Norwich, the nation’s oldest private military college, learned during visits to Gambia in the summer of 2008 and the following May.

Inspired by a presentation on the country by fellow Norwich Professor John Meyer, education Professor Diane Byrne planned the trips to study primary and secondary education and allow students to perform service in schools. The teacher education program at Norwich has an ongoing relationship with the University of Gambia, which is the smallest country in Africa at about twice the size of Delaware.

While teaching others, visitors learned new things about themselves and the world. Staying in African villages, the group worked with the Baku Basic Primary School and the Njwara Village School with children in kindergarten through sixth grade. “I was surprised to see that the schools had very inadequate classrooms and utensils to teach the children,” said Emily Shapiro, a psychology major from Middlesex, Vt., which is not far from Norwich’s Northfield campus. “That was hard to see.”

Ashley Potvin, a rising junior from Biddeford, Maine, was taken aback by cows in the streets and live chickens stuffed in shopping bags at the market; Bartholomew was surprised by the mud, brick and thatch huts that housed entire families, and by repeated marriage proposals, presumably for money.

“Many people are so friendly but then try to ask you for money or gifts,” she explained. “We are just college students ... it was so hard telling them no.”

Once students began working more intensely with children and villagers, however, eye-opening events become eye-to-eye relationships. Although the native dialect is Wolof, classes are taught in English, making communication easier. Songs and letter-writing for a planned pen-pal relationship with a Barre, Vt., school also created instant bonds.

The value and importance of family in Gambia will stay with Shapiro forever. So will a new sense of appreciation. “The Gambians may not have much, but they are truly grateful for what they do have and they still love life and make the most out of it every day,” she said.

Bartholomew said watching happy children chasing a deflated soccer ball helped her realize how much she has—and how much she has to give. Potvin, meanwhile, discovered a remarkable culture of acceptance among the largely Muslim Gambian population. “They want you to be who you are,” she said. “They want you to do whatever you want to do, no matter what religion or race.”

Byrne is planning a return trip to Gambia for 2010, when she hopes to teach an assessment course for head teachers at the University of Gambia while Norwich students again work in elementary- or secondary-level classrooms.

The Norwich delegation also took time to take in sights around The Gambia, a country best known to Europeans for beaches, including crocodile parks and concerts. But the best souvenirs couldn’t be snapped with a camera or bought at a local market.

“I believe that this experience has nurtured tolerance and appreciation for others for our students that they will bring with them throughout their personal and professional lives,” said Byrne.

Shapiro agreed her time in Gambia will enhance a planned career in education. Bartholomew added she is now seeking ways to volunteer in Africa in between her school and Army obligations.

“When you can put a huge, warm smile on someone’s face just by giving them something as small as a pencil,” she said, “it lights a fire inside of you that you never knew you had.”