How a Semester in Senegal Shaped our Lives

This post comes from Abroad101 friend and Guest Blogger Mairéad O’Grady, who currently resides in Washington, DC and works at The School for Ethics and Global Leadership as a French teacher and Residential Advisor. Inspired by her MSID semester in Senegal, Mairéad accepted a Grinnell Corps teaching position in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2010, where she spent her first postgraduate year. Now back in America, her work focuses on helping motivated high school students shape themselves into ethical global leaders who create positive change in our world.


Four years ago last month, I boarded an airplane full of strangers destined for Dakar, Senegal.  Most of my fellow passengers were dressed in the colorful garb so emblematic of West Africa, chattering in a language I could not yet recognize with babies slung gracefully across their backs.  The few who wore wide-eyed expressions and more familiar attire were my fellow study abroad students, and we gravitated to each other as we boarded, talking amongst ourselves while nervously imagining the next time we’d touch dry land.

The view from the airplane while traveling from New York City to Dakar is simply the huge, vast Atlantic Ocean, and I can vividly recall looking out the window with a gulp as I realized that there was nothing but water between the home I’d left behind and the new one I’d soon discover.  Throughout the plane ride, I mentally sorted through the cast of characters I’d met at the gate, my classmates and support network for the next four months: the Ultimate Frisbee-playing environmentalist; the Utah native with the friendly smile who stood behind me in line as we checked in; the Ohio University student who already had a year of Wolof under her belt.  These faces and stories, which would soon be so distinctive and important in my life, began as a blur with the rest of the unfamiliar sights and sounds of my début days in Dakar.

When I look back at my early pictures from Senegal, I am amazed at the sights I thought photo-worthy, the scenes I found remarkable.  Goats eating watermelon rinds and cockroaches on the stairs; colorful communal dinner trays and peeling, painted pirogues: these images, once novel, so quickly became a part of my daily life.  Similarly, I am struck when I recall my first impressions of my fellow students, who became more like family than friends over the course of those months abroad.  It is hard to remember a time when they were not a part of my life, because the intensity of our shared experience made me feel closer to them, in some ways, than to many of my lifelong friends.

Over the years since we went our separate ways, different factions of our set of seventeen have remained in touch more than others, but a reply-all chain email, sporadically rekindled, has kept us updated on the whereabouts and accomplishments of the group.  And I have been incredibly impressed, though not a bit surprised, to discover that we have graced almost every continent, doing everything from teaching to writing, from resettling refugees to creating a rapid diagnostic tuberculosis test.  Two members of our group were awarded Fulbright research grants in Senegal; one received a Fulbright to teach English in Cameroon; another teaches in Mali, Senegal’s next-door neighbor.  Three have pursued MPH degrees at UC Berkeley, University of Michigan, and Yale.  One passionate young woman works for Groupon, and has pioneered a “Green Committee” to ensure that this fast-growing company remains environmentally friendly as it continues to expand.  Another friend teaches for America in the Mississippi Delta; yet another is a nurse in Minneapolis.  Several of us have recently relocated to the Baltimore/DC area to work with youth. Every member of my study abroad family seems to have found a niche for incredibly valuable contribution.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet up again with several of them, in America and back in Senegal and, most recently, in Southeast Asia.  When I first left for Senegal, an idealistic east coast liberal studying music and French in Iowa, even I could never have imagined that three years later, I’d be vacationing in Singapore while living and teaching in Thailand, baking brownies with a missionary kid who studied environmental science but works as a behavioral therapist – or that that same friend and I would now both be living in Washington, DC, pursuing our recently realized dreams.  From our wildly varied backgrounds to our diverse current lives, Senegal has remained the common thread that will continue not simply to link us, but to be our “launching pad,” as one friend put it, as we seek opportunities for cultural immersion and ways to make a difference.


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