Registered Charitable Taxation no. CHY 9078

August 7, 2012 By Fran Wallace

“I hear, I know. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.”

– Confucius, Chinese philosopher and political theorist, 551-479 BC

Immersion programmes are growing in popularity, with many Irish schools engaging and as the word spreads of successful trips many more are expressing interest. There are many questions surrounding immersion programmes with some writing them off as ‘development tourism’ or, more scathingly, ‘poverty tourism’. Are such trips a worthwhile investment in social capital or an expensive school trip? Do students build a sense of global citizenship or merely top up their tan? Is it a mutual learning experience for peers from different continents or a massive burden on host communities?

Like or loath the idea, the simple fact is immersion programmes are happening and it’s important to reflect: is there any value in them?

An immersion programme is a form of experiential development education which sees students from the so-called developed world ‘immersed’ in the culture and day-to-day life of their peers in the developing world. Some programmes have come full circle with reciprocal visits.

I embarked on a recent immersion trip to Ghana as part of the leadership team accompanying 28 Irish transition and 5th year students. The first week saw the Irish students split into groups of 2 or 3 and placed in a Ghanaian classroom of up to 50 students to attend regular classes in St. James’ Secondary School, Sunyani. On the first morning there were some understandable nerves: how many of us Irish have ever been in a minority? Four hours later, the buzz from the students as they filed out of the classroom was palpable. Students of very different cultures find common ground in the familiar classroom set up, one student remarking

“School is school: it’s like school at home, except we’re in a different classroom”.

The students probably learned most from each other, and host communities grabbed the opportunity to educate their Irish peers in the positive things that are happening at their community and national level, covering topics from education, to the elections at the end of the year, to emigration. They did not shy away from discussing the challenges their communities and government face. The students were open, frank and honest with each other with a freedom on both sides to ask any questions; from the macro and meso, to the perhaps equally insightful topics of family life, pop culture, football and love! This was the first exposure to Africa for the vast majority of students. They were in some cases surprised not to meet their idea of the continent formed mostly from Western media and charity ads.

The second week saw the students participate in an afternoon English language programme with primary school students from St. Anthony’s Primary School, Bantama, Kumasi. Here the Irish students engaged Ghanaian students in conversation, activities and role-plays, learning of each others’ cultures while building confidence in interacting in and speaking English.

A trip to the Kejetia market in Kumasi one day was described as the “living and breathing Africa” by one of the Irish students: hustle and bustle, sights, sounds and smells that you couldn’t confuse for, or liken to, anywhere at home. Students reflected on the “fine line” between being “ok and surviving” and having “nothing at all” with the stark reality of having no savings or social security net to fall back on in times of illness or scarcity. For many of the petty traders, mostly women, we saw and interacted with that day their livelihood was dependent on their day to day sales. Irish students began to recognise how “thoughts of, and savings for, the future are a luxury”. A few students went off the beaten track in search of a latrine and were confronted with the reality of those who didn’t have a successful day at the market when they spotted people scavenging from a make-shift land-fill. We were left considering the complexity of poverty and the integrated nature of basic needs; important discussion and debate ensued as to whether water, health, education, nutrition, infrastructure, governance, trade etc. should be prioritised in a country with limited resources.

This particular programme has been running bi-annually for 8 years. The schools now have a very real connection and as time has passed, the link between the two has deepened. The relationship has developed from one between hosts and visitors to one of partnership; both schools actively exploring learning opportunities for their respective students. Teachers and students from both schools engage in a learner-centred approach to development education. Rather than going to ‘help’, ‘give’ or ‘fix’, Irish students go to ‘be’, ‘see’ and ‘experience’. The impact is felt in the minds of the students who, by the end of the two weeks, began with the first step of asking critical questions and considering their potential role in promoting social justice.

Past participants are enthusiastic and appreciative, finding their experience “real” and “meaningful”. However, the long term impact of this immersion programme is still emerging. Fundraising is an element of the programme and the trip included visits to project areas where previous immersions’ funding was channelled. Visits to communities where projects have been implemented saw the students not only confronted by the face of poverty and its multi-faceted nature, but also with locally-designed responses for sustainable development.

One considerable issue is the limited reach of such programmes: relatively few Irish students have, and will, travel, and opportunities are curtailed by means and by school links to the developing world. The traditional classroom-based approach or public awareness campaigns have the advantage of wider exposure. The potential continued involvement after students return home to use their experience to drive change – albeit in the face of leaving certificate and university ‘distractions’ – will in the long term define the success of such programmes. As immersion programmes mature along with the students who travelled on the trips, only time will tell their long term impact on development.

I have lived and worked in Ghana but this was my first time traveling as part of an immersion programme. What unfolded was an enjoyable learning experience for the students and leadership team alike as perceptions of the developing world were challenged. Accompanying the students in their day to day life with their Ghanaian peers was a unique experience as the fear of the unknown evaporated and the exploration of the “different” and “colourful” began. Students gained some small insight into the complexity and reality of Ghana today; both its recent strides in development and the remaining challenges for those living in poverty. The learning-focused nature of this programme side-lined any reservations I may have had. In the short term, the immersion experience is one for the Irish and Ghanaian students to share with their extended family and school networks.