For approximately a month, I had the privilege of expanding the horizons of my educational repertoire in Kenya. I participated in an innovation lab that was jointly pioneered by the Honors College and College of Business where students were granted the opportunity to engage with Kenyan entrepreneurs who had been affected by HIV/AIDS. Our objective was to practice cross-cultural engagement, assessment, and problem-solving, so the entrepreneurs would have more effective business designs that were conducive to their personal goals. The skill set that I brought to the table was from my background as a Bachelors of Social Work candidate and Founder/President of Fortitude, a student organization. I understood the importance of maintaining a strengths-based perspective and cultural sensitivity, but this innovation lab was the first opportunity that I had to practice this understanding. I was able to spend time with Margaret, the entrepreneur I was collaborating with, in various settings that included her home, business, friend’s shops, and church. It was both a grounding and exhilarating experience to see how she defined, embodied, and balanced the various roles that she played. It was as though she had to hold the world in her eyes since her hands were always moving, switching between various task. She and I were able to develop a special bond in a short amount of time that I will forever be grateful for. In addition to building a relationship and understanding of the cultural context she was living in, I was also able to collaboratively innovate potential solutions with a team that could, over time, strengthen her business.
Additional experiences that made our field work with the entrepreneurs more comprehensive were our visits to the U.S. Embassy (the museum for the old bombed one & the current one), the United Nations, iHub in Nairobi, BRCK, Made in the Streets, Kibera (informal settlement, commonly known as a “slum”). We were able to witness some of the self-identified concerns of the Kenyan entrepreneurs and use them to guide our questions when we met the governmental, non-governmental, and innovation-oriented organizations who were striving to make a difference on a macro level. On the recreational side, we visited the Maasai tribe, a safari, an elephant orphanage, a giraffe center, and numerous restaurants.
The main takeaway for me was that my knowledge is limited regardless of the amount of schooling that I attain. Everything I thought I knew was layered with different aspects of my American culture that did not easily translate while in Kenya. It was scary, but also refreshing to see that there was another world out there. Immersive experiences such as study abroad are vital for self-discovery, critical thinking, and skill enhancement.
Opeletia Helton is majoring in Social Work. She participated in a faculty-led trip to Kenya through the College of Business and Honors College in May, 2018.
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