WORTHINGTON — Minnesota West Community and Technical College history instructor Dr. Anita Talsma Gaul used the first two weeks of this semester to pursue a unique development opportunity to travel to Senegal.
She now has big plans for how to apply what she learned to the classroom.
Gaul's trip was sponsored and fully funded by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC). CAORC, Gaul explained, does a number of educational exchanges between its numerous research centers around the world. This particular exchange — to the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal — was unique in that it was designed specifically for community college faculty.
When Gaul's former colleague at Southwest Minnesota State University alerted her to the opportunity, she knew she needed to apply. The instructor thought of her students, who come from a diverse group of countries and cultures. Minnesota West doesn't currently offer a world history class, which means many students don't get to see themselves in history.
Gaul recalled a time when she was teaching Western Civilization, which begins with ancient Egypt and then transitions into European-based ancient civilizations. Partway through the semester, a student asked Gaul, "When are we going to learn about Africa again?"
As part of her application for the CAORC exchange, Gaul needed to write five 500-word essays explaining how she would use her knowledge from the trip in class, what she sees as the value of global education and how her excursion would benefit her classroom, institution and community.
Gaul wrote that she would like to bring world history back to Minnesota West. A trip to West Africa would also improve her United States history curriculum as it relates to slavery, she added. Although she gave simple answers, she said, the instructor felt she had nothing to lose by applying.
Gaul was overjoyed to learn that she was accepted for the exchange.
"I whooped so loud that all my colleagues poked their heads out their doors," she recounted.
The journey to Senegal included 16 community college faculty from around the country and two group leaders who had been on the West African exchange before. Once there, the party followed three Senegalese tour guides around notable sites within the country.
The national language of Senegal is French, and many Senegalese people also speak local languages, Gaul noted. The language barrier limited Gaul's ability to ask locals all the questions that occurred to her, so she got a lot of mileage out of the tour guides.
A highlight of the trip for Gaul was the new foods she was able to eat. Coastal geography means Senegal consumes a lot of fish. An adventurous eater, Gaul jumped right in and tried the local cuisine.
Despite Senegal's long stretches of sandy beach, Gaul wasn't able to enjoy the ocean as much as she thought she would. Instead, she witnessed the volume of trash floating in the ocean.
"It broke my heart," she said, "because it's just like you see in the documentaries.
"It's real," she added. "We are drowning in trash."
Another sobering sight was the trip Gaul and the rest of the group made to Gorée Island, just over a mile off the coast of Dakar. In the 18th century, the island was a holding place for kidnapped Africans before European slave traders loaded them onto ships headed for the Americas.
Of the more than 20 slave houses that were once active on the island, only one is still standing. Gaul visited the slave house and learned about the appalling conditions enslaved Africans endured there.
"It's one thing to teach about the slave trade and to think about the horrors theoretically," Gaul said. Standing in the actual place where these acts occurred was a somber scene, especially as Gaul observed the reactions of her African-American colleagues.
Minnesota West had furnished Gaul with a 360-degree camera, which she used to record images of the whole slave house, with the intention to create a virtual reality tour for her students.
This tour and building a world history class are Gaul's summer projects.
"I am a storyteller," the historian said, and the trip to Senegal has given her more stories to tell.
"History is the story of us," Gaul concluded. "It's all of our stories put together."
She added that she hopes what she learned in West Africa will help her students connect with their own stories.