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Four ways to prepare for traveling abroad to West Africa

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July 12, 2015
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August 31, 2015

As seen in USA TODAY College:

Four ways to prepare for traveling abroad to West Africa

By McKenzie Powell, Ohio University June 3, 2015 4:14 pm

E ver since spring semester ceased, I have been frantically checking off endless items on my long to-do list of preparations for studying abroad in Senegal, a country located on the Western coast of Africa.

While the process hasn’t been extraordinarily overwhelming, there have been a few basic things that stand out as the most important to prepare ahead of time.

1. Get Your Vaccines and Prescription Medications Ahead of Time

When traveling to a West African country, you may be given a few more shots and prescription medications than you are accustomed to. It is extremely important to make an appointment with a qualified physician far in advance from your travels as these appointment times can be filled shockingly fast.

Learn from my mistakes and don’t call the month you are set to depart. Instead, call several months in advance to schedule your appointment. Also, use this opportunity to uncover the answers to any general, lingering questions you may have about vaccinations and your health abroad.

2. Pack Light

Packing can be tricky, especially for an area with an unusually warm climate and potential cultural and religious differences. Think along the lines of “bare minimum” and always make sure that you are able to carry any and all luggage you have packed. Also, don’t forget your sunscreen, bug spray and, potentially, a headlamp!

“I think some people assume they have to bring everything. Sometimes it’s comical because you’ll see students bring a years’ worth of soap. That says a lot about expectations and what people understand about the reality here,” says Victoria Fletcher, the assistant resident director in Senegal for the Council on International Educational Exchange.

If you are still having a difficult time deciding what to bring or what type of clothing will be appropriate, chat with a friend, colleague or professor who has traveled to that country and ask for advice. This individual may also be able to tell you what items you will have easy access to so you won’t have to worry about bringing them from home and taking up too much space in your suitcase.

3. Practice the Language

Language barriers may be one of the most frustrating hurdles to overcome while abroad. If you are hoping to practice some of the language before leaving, take a class the semester before, find a dictionary or search online for common greetings, phrases and questions.

While it is important to prepare, Fletcher believes that your outlook when first arriving in West Africa is the determining factor of what you will truly learn.

“I don’t see a huge difference between students who have done a little bit and students who have done nothing,” she says. “I think it’s more about attitude once you get here and drive once you get here. I think if you get here and you really want to learn, you’ll learn.”

4. Research, Research, Research — But Not Too Much

No matter the country you choose, it is important to research the country’s official language, the predominant religion and some historical facts. It’s essential to know what you’re getting yourself into before leaving, especially when it comes to respecting and understanding the area’s cultural, linguistic and religious background.

At the same time, don’t assume online research can tell you everything.

“They are not only going to be encountering cultural differences but religious differences across the board. I think that some students come here and think that they know everything about everything,” Fletcher says.

“I think you have to come here knowing that you know very little, and I think that’s the only way that you can really learn and have it be a transformative experience.”

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