By Charles Buchanan and Tiffany Westry
UAB senior Shanquela Williams says she has a passion to change the world. And she’s off to a good start: In the spring of 2016, she made a difference in the lives of children in the west African nation of Ghana, where she spent a semester studying social work.
That opportunity came after Williams, a Tuscaloosa native, won the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the program aims to make study-abroad experiences accessible to a more diverse population of students—and to encourage students to choose less traditional study-abroad destinations. The Gilman scholarship is highly competitive; out of more than 10,000 applications, Williams was among 800 American undergraduates to receive the award.
A social work major in the College of Arts and Sciences, Williams continued her studies at the University of Ghana, and also took a course focusing on the development of the family and society throughout Africa. Service learning was part of the curriculum, too. “Echoing Hills Village Ghana is an orphanage that has an outreach to about 60 children who have an intellectual disability,” Williams says. “My work focused on raising awareness and resources for this segment of the community.
“In the profession of social work, you aim to improve the quality of life for people and their families in many ways,” she says. “It’s perfect for what I desire to do in life.”
Williams and her new friends from the University Studies Abroad Consortium program traveled around Ghana to explore its natural and cultural treasures. Highlights included paddling to the Nzuelzo Village, a 500-person settlement built on stilts, and visiting the waterfalls and mountains of the Volta region.
On one excursion, they got a royal surprise, finding themselves at the funeral of Paramount Chief Oseadeeyo Addo Dankwa III. Such a royal event is both rare and epic, Williams explains. “The celebration of the chief’s life was marked by drums, gunshots, and songs. President John Mahama of Ghana, along with other dignitaries, came to the celebration” at the chief’s palace, she recalls.
Williams also learned to navigate the language barrier and handle regular blackouts to conserve energy. But even things that seemed like challenges in the beginning, such as limited Internet access, became learning opportunities, Williams says. “Not having access to technology at my fingertip has taught me to become a better communicator,” she explains. In Ghana, “everyone greets you, and that simple greeting usually turns into a conversation.”
Taste Adventure: Williams enjoyed sampling Ghanaian foods such as okra soup with banku, which is a cooked fermented corn dough, and “red red,” a bean and meat stew. Her favorite? Kelewele, or fried plantains.
Now back home, Williams will continue pursuing her social work degree—and resume her volunteering to help children through Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Birmingham. Her time in Ghana won’t be far from her mind, however, she says. “My experience here will certainly shape part of my life’s work,” she explains. “It allows me to better understand that a life of service is critical, regardless of my career choice. My commitment to impact the lives of children such as those at Echoing Hills Village, as well as those in Birmingham, will be ongoing.”