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May 21, 2014

Jeanette McGuire: Study Abroad Changes Lives

May 21, 2014

Jeanette McGuire is an assistant instructor of zoology in the College of Natural Science. She teaches two study abroad courses, including, “Evolution of Uganda’s Forest Biodiversity: Apes to Aves,” in Uganda.

I am often asked why I teach study abroad courses, and my answer simply has been that it changes lives. Recently, through the acts of my students, I was reminded as to what studying abroad does not only for instructors and students, but also for communities both at home and abroad. I have learned that through inspiring each other we can turn tragedies into beautiful things.

I teach two study abroad courses for MSU. One course I teach with David Orban is set in Uganda and focuses on evolution of biodiversity of birds and primates. The students learn to master research techniques while they hike through forests, track chimpanzees and mountain gorillas, canoe through swamps, and capture and handle rare birds.

Although this is primarily a science course, we think it is important to include cultural activities, lessons on the country's history and ultimately have the human connection that is essential for a well-rounded experience. In between our scientific studies, we visit schools and work in their farms, attend performances at a local orphanage, meet with a Batwa tribe and chat with locals in the communities.

We rely heavily on local guides, drivers and cooks—some of who live with us during the course, and who become our dear friends. Their expertise is invaluable and they enrich the program beyond the science. Campfire chats help all of us to gain a deeper appreciation of the culture, the people, their struggles and their successes. Through these discussions we learn more about the country and how the people contribute greatly to our education and also welcome each of us with open arms. When I think about what I love most about Uganda, it is the people with their big hearts and bright smiles.

Earlier this year, I was deeply saddened to learn that one of our guides, Benson Bamatura passed away at the age of 33. He left behind a wife, three children and two foster children. Benson was an expert mist-netter and birding guide and worked on conservation projects throughout Uganda. Benson lived with us on the program in the summer of 2012, and again came to assist the program for a few days in 2013. He was charismatic, friendly, and loved by the students, David and me. Many of the students from 2012 remained in email contact with him after the program. Some talked of traveling back to Uganda to stay with him and his family. We were all heartbroken over the loss of our dear friend Benson.

Here is where the value of study abroad became abundantly clear to me. From the sadness of losing Benson came a force of unity from students from multiple years of the course. We joke on the course that we are a mobile family, supporting each other and sharing both the good and bad as we experience all that Africa has to offer. It is true, we are a mobile family, and as one member of our family is lost, the rest pull together to do what we can. After hearing of Benson's passing, I contacted our Ugandan friend, Kemigisha and asked how we could help. She told us that with the passing of Benson, the educational future of his children was uncertain. Kemigisha suggested building a classroom at the Bigodi Secondary School and, in exchange, the school would cover the tuition and fees for all of Benson's children to attend through graduation.

In addition it would be a tribute to Benson and a gift to his community that shows his dedication to education and conservation. It sounded wonderful, but the price tag was heavy: $10,000. David and I were initially disheartened—how could we raise that kind of money? By this time, former study abroad students were all emailing in a flurry wanting to help. We pitched the idea to them and they were all in strong support. Everyone wanted to help. Some have held can drives, others are coordinating fundraising efforts with their fraternities or friends—all of them are helping in the best ways that they can.

One student in particular, Sarah Scott, came to meet with me. She took the reins and started spreading the word. By the end of the first day, she had connected with another friend, Kirk Mason, and between them agreed to make the first big financial donation and an even more precious gift—their time and energy. They plan to go back to Uganda this fall to help make sure that the classroom becomes a reality.

My students inspire me. Every single student is doing what they can to inspire others to change the lives and the circumstances of a community. Each person is telling their story with their voice to make changes. This is the gift of study abroad.

Through these experiences, we as a global community are all touched. Study abroad changes not only the lives of instructors and students, but also our friends and families are changed through our stories and our passions. They feel connected to the countries that we visit and love and, as a result, we change communities both at home and abroad.

Although we have not quite reached our financial goal (yet!), the thoughtfulness, compassion and dedication of the students has reminded me of the real value of the experiences we provide. I feel honored to teach and continue to learn from my students. I have never been more proud to be a Spartan than I am today.

Learn more about Benson’s story

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