CONTINENTAL DRIFT: EXPERIENCE IN AFRICA OPENS NEW RESEARCH PATH
About an hour and a half’s drive from Accra, the capital of Ghana, on the banks of the Volta River, is a poignant example of the impact of the McGill International Experience Awards.
It was in the small villages of this region that Madeleine Henderson, a first-year PhD student in McGill’s Department of Sociology, worked on the implementation of a financial literacy and mentorship program for adolescent girls.
With the assistance of a McGill International Experience Award, Henderson was able to travel to the region in the summer of 2014 to develop ways to survey, assess and help 1,500 young women in this remote area.
“This experience contributed immensely to my own training as a researcher,” says Henderson, who used the travel opportunity to talk with adolescent girls and community leaders and learn about the financial and social needs of girls in this setting. “It was important for me to go out and get a contextual understanding of what’s going on in those communities. It also provided me with an important opportunity to set up my own dissertation project.”
“Madeleine’s project is a wonderful example of what the McGill Commitment is all about: offering our students a rich and diverse educational experience inside and outside of the classroom,” says Professor Ollivier Dyens, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning). “The McGill International Experience Awards have been an incredible catalyst for allowing students to expand their horizons, engage in hands-on community projects, and experience the kinds of life-changing international opportunities that they will remember throughout their lives.”
More than 40 McGill students benefitted from awards in the program’s inaugural year, allowing for internships, academic exchanges and a wide range of research and fieldwork placements spanning the globe from Ecuador to Mongolia.
Part of Henderson’s project involved providing half of the participants with bank accounts and $15 USD, along with a financial literacy workshop. Some also received an opportunity to partake in a weekly mentorship session with other girls their age.
These interventions were set up in hopes of allowing young women in a resource-poor setting to make choices about their futures, particularly their education. While the money could be allocated in many different ways, a significant number of participants chose to invest their funds in activities related to their schooling – a positive outcome from Henderson’s point of view. Their education is technically free, but additional expenses pose significant barriers to girls in this region.
“A uniform costs $15 and that potential investment could help a young woman stay in school,” says Henderson.
“One of the biggest positives emanating from the survey and the program was the attention which was focused on these young women – often for the first time in their lives,” she adds. “It became a source of self-esteem.”
Now that Henderson has returned to McGill, her experience in Ghana continues to inform her studies, helping her develop as a researcher, a student and an engaged citizen of a community extending far beyond the boundaries of the University. Her research will focus on the migration of adolescent girls and she plans to maintain contact with the women over the next three years to document their migration experience, identifying factors that both foster and hinder their goals of education achievement.
“Adolescent migration is a relatively unstudied field because these young people can be very difficult to track,” adds Henderson who says her post-PhD plans will likely involve further academic research or work with international organizations for health and development.
“This was probably one of the most valuable parts of my academic trajectory,” says Henderson. “Without this funding I would not have been able to participate in this unique opportunity.”
The McGill International Experience Awards were created thanks to the generosity of Joseph Schull, BA’82, MA’85, and Anna Yang, BCL’87, LLB’87, to help students gain firsthand international experiences related to their fields of study. The program supports extended international study and research projects for students in the Faculties of Arts and Law, as well as in other Faculties across the University as administered by the Office of the Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning). A portion of the gift will also help recruit international students to McGill.