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Nov. 7, 2018

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The pathway to the perfect career choice could be waiting for you on the other side of the world.

That was the case for Abigail Myles and Cassandra Voets, two Laurier students who participated in the summer 2018 internships offered through the Laurier-Ghana Partnership for Human Rights and Social Justice. Funded by the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship program, the partnership offers senior-level Laurier students the opportunity to develop intercultural and professional competencies abroad, as they work with partner organizations to benefit local communities and advance human rights.

“The internships provide undergrads with a unique opportunity to put their career aspirations and desire to work internationally to the test by making small, yet significant, contributions to the work of Ghanaian human rights and development organizations,” says Andrew Robinson, associate professor and coordinator of Laurier’s Human Rights and Human Diversity (HRHD) program. “When they return to Laurier, they contribute to Laurier’s International at Home initiative by sharing what they have learned with other students through presentations, contributions in class and casual conversations.”

For Myles and Voets, both HRHD majors, the 90-day exchange in the Ghanaian capital of Accra made a life-changing impact on their post-Laurier plans.

Working to Keep Ghana’s Kids Safe

Myles interned with International Needs Ghana (INGH), a faith-based organization that promotes community development by focusing on issues such as child rights and labour, education, gender and empowerment. Her responsibilities were divided between writing field reports and funding proposals in INGH’s head office, and working with INGH staff to implement outreach programs that addressed pressing social issues, like child protection, in Accra’s most impoverished communities.

Education is technically free in Ghana, but the cost of school uniforms and ancillary fees limits how many families can afford to send their children to school. As a result, many Ghanaian youth end up on the streets, increasing their exposure to child labour, crime or human traffickers. Youth that do attend school face similar risks during summer holidays, a time when child-related violations are most often reported.

Myles implemented INGH’s summer safety workshops at an elementary school in Kuve, a small town in the country’s Volta Region. The workshops teach students about personal safety, stranger danger and sexual health – important information to be equipped with for life beyond the classroom’s protective walls. The workshops also indirectly educate street children, as many of them learn second-hand from friends who can afford schooling.

The topics are not ones that any child should have to learn from another child, says Myles, who believes that education is a basic yet powerful human right, especially for children.

“The children I met in Kuve have so much potential, but we are losing out on their potential because they cannot afford to go to school,” says Myles. “Teaching them, whether it is an academic curriculum or a life-skills program, is ongoing work and we can’t wash our hands of it.”

The internship has changed her plan to pursue a career in law to one that empowers people on the ground.

“I want to work directly with people in their communities instead of advocating for them in a courtroom,” says Myles. “Finding tangible ways to empower people gets me excited about human rights because everyone has the right to be treated equally.”

Myles may never know if her safety lessons made a difference for the Ghanaian students she taught, but her supervisor, INGH program officer Elikem Awuye, assured her that every little bit adds up to real change.

Awuye, Myles and other interns visited a community in Central Ghana where INGH instituted a community-wide child protection plan three years earlier in response to a violation. A radio system now broadcasts regular safety messages throughout the streets to residents and visitors. The accused in the case was banned from the community and local parents receive on-going education about children’s rights. The victim, 16, is almost finished school and plans to become a teacher.

“It’s overwhelming but very empowering to see how people and communities can move forward after tragedies,” says Myles.

Creating Capacity for Classroom Readiness

Cassandra Voets participated in the Laurier-Ghana exchange to see if a career in international social work would be one that she would enjoy.

Voets interned with Street Child Empowerment Foundation (SCEF), a not-for-profit agency that secures financial aid for Ghanaian youth to attend school. Voets worked one-on-one with street youth to teach basic literacy and numeracy skills in preparation for the school system’s entrance examination. The exam, says Voets, determines the child’s academic abilities and places them in the appropriate grade level.

At first, the task appeared to be a tall order for Voets: she had little teaching experience and her students have never been to school, lacking the basic social skills often learned in a school environment. But the effort put forth by a 10-year-old female student named Blessing made the challenge worthwhile.

“Blessing didn’t know the alphabet or its sounds,” says Voets. “She had never been to school and only knew life on the streets. We spent a lot of time going over letters and sounds, but I wasn’t sure it was working.”

The lessons, supported by nothing more than pencils, paper, and Voets’ creativity, did work. Over the course of their three weeks together, Blessing slowly started to sound out short words and began reading, often choosing to read on through the recess break. Blessing promised Voets that she would continue reading in preparation for the entrance exam.

Last month, Voets learned that her student has passed the entrance exam and would be starting school.

“I was in class when I got the news about Blessing,” says Voets. “I had to step out for a few minutes and process it. It was very emotional for me. Hopefully, I have helped to change her life’s course for the better.”

Applying to the Laurier-Ghana Partnership for Human Rights and Social Justice

Internship opportunities available through the Laurier-Ghana partnership are open to Laurier students at the Brantford and Waterloo campuses. Applications for the summer 2019 experience are due by Monday, Nov. 26 at 4 p.m. For complete application criteria, exchange details and funding resources, visit the Opportunities Abroad page. Questions can be directed to globalengagement@wlu.ca.

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