Lawrence students interact with students in a schoolyard in The Gambia.
ϲʿ students, wearing KidsGive T-shirts, from left, Isabelle Konters, Aaron Reese, and Quynh Anh Cao Le, interact with students in a schoolyard in The Gambia. 

Since 2011, ϲʿ students have had the opportunity to participate in field experience abroad as part of the course Field Experience in Development, traveling to Sierra Leone, Ghana, Jamaica, and Morocco. 

2024 marked a first for the course. Led by Claudena Skran, Edwin & Ruth West Professor of Economics and Social Science and professor of government, and Jason Brozek, Stephen Edward Scarff Professor of International Affairs and associate professor of government, the class traveled to The Gambia, a small West African country with a narrow Atlantic Ocean coastline. 

The course allows students to travel to a developing country to both conduct research and give back to the community. During spring break, 16 students embarked on a trip that would give their education a global perspective. 


 Field experience

The course also gives students the opportunity to collaborate with majors across campus, including government, business and entrepreneurship, global studies, international relations, economics, and environmental studies.  

“The course brings students together from different parts of our Lawrence campus community,” Skran said. “Having students with different majors allows them to learn from each other, and from their hosts.” 

The 12 students pursuing research projects chose their own political, economic, social, or environmental topic to pursue and research, mainly through observations and interviews with national and local leaders.  

Lawrence students work on research in The Gambia.
Lawrence students worked on research projects while in The Gambia. 

For Nico Manzanera, traveling to The Gambia wasn’t the only first. He had recently declared a business and entrepreneurship major, a program that began at the start of the 2023-24 academic year. He became the first business major to go on one of these research trips.

“I was very happy to take the opportunity,” Manzanera said.

A sophomore from Bradenton, Florida, Manzanera chose to explore the main challenges and opportunities for businesses in The Gambia. He was able to speak with people from all walks of life—entrepreneurs, lawyers, athletes, and politicians.  

Much of his observation came from traveling to local gathering spots in the city, as well as riding public transportation and talking to taxi drivers.  

“I traveled a lot,” Manzanera said. “I got to see a lot of the day-to-day life of these people.” 

Senior Gigi Wood received one of her best leads from a taxi driver.  

A double major in international relations and philosophy from Lake Villa, Illinois, Wood chose to base her research on sports and youth sports in The Gambia. Her taxi driver introduced her to a soccer player who played internationally for 16 years.  

“He was the most helpful interview I had for my project, and I hadn’t even planned it,” Wood said. “It just kind of came about just from going to different areas and seeing different fields in the country. I was able to stumble on these amazing people who filled me in on things I wouldn’t have found online researching and gave me insights to look into on how sports can develop in these countries.” 

Map showing location of The Gambia in West Africa.

As an athlete herself—Wood played on the women’s ice hockey team for four years—the topic was a perfect fit. Through her interactions, Wood hoped to learn more about the difficulties The Gambia had with their developing infrastructure, how athletes develop, and what that means for their country.  

One of their main challenges, Wood said, is that many of the best athletes travel to Europe to play, especially soccer players. This makes it difficult to develop the professional teams in The Gambia. 

However, she found that some international players have started to return to The Gambia to open youth sports programs.  

“I got to talk to a few of them and get the real sense of what it means to be a youth athlete in a developing country like The Gambia,” Wood said.  

Junior Miami Kirkwood found that The Gambia is at the forefront of global environmental conversations.  

Although The Gambia is a small nation with a vast array of environmental concerns, the country also has some of the most ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for the Paris Climate Agreement. (An NDC is a climate action plan to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts.) 

Kirkwood, an environmental studies major from Delton, Michigan, focused her research on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and how they collaborate with policymaking in developing countries. 

“NGOs in The Gambia play a much different role than they do here in the United States,” Kirkwood said. “They’re much more hands-on.” 

Kirkwood had an interview with the team at Green Up Gambia, one of the most renowned NGOs in the country.  

One thing founder Kemo Fatty said that struck her, Kirkwood said, was The Gambia was “ground zero” for climate change, and that it was their job to talk to people to facilitate their needs. 

“Starting with the people who are experiencing environmental crises or environmental concerns and really engaging with local populations and listening to their needs,” Kirkwood said. “These organizations have the resources to do more about that, so really they view themselves as facilitators rather than as saviors.” 

Quynh Anh Cao Le laughs as she feeds a monkey at Bijilo Forest Park, a national park often known as Monkey Park.
Sophomore Quynh Anh Cao Le reacts as she feeds a monkey at Bijilo Forest Park, a national park known as Monkey Park. The students learned about sustainability efforts and the conservation of the monkeys that reside there. 

To Quynh Anh (Cailey) Cao Le,  a sophomore international relations major from Vietnam, that understanding of the daily lives, struggles, and goals of the local people made the trip a unique experience. 

“I think that is the amazing part,” Cao Le said. “We had a chance to understand their daily life. You have a chance for very intense interaction, also intense observation—really, really powerful to help understand more about the country.” 

Cao Le’s research focused on the relationship between democracy and Islam in The Gambia. According to Cao Le, about 96% of the population of The Gambia identifies as Muslim, and the country just adopted democracy in 2017.  

In addition to interviewing the Imam of the Masjid Taqwa Mosque, one of the leading religious leaders in the country, Cao Le also observed how the people acted, prayed, and worshiped, including in public spaces, to fuel her research.  

 Fun and games

Even with a schedule jam-packed with interviews and meetings, the students were able to squeeze in time to have some fun. With the beach just steps away from their hotel, swimming and playing beach volleyball together were common pastimes. 

They also embraced the city life by wandering the town and enjoying local foods, African music, and each other’s stories about their experiences. The numerous markets were also a highlight of the trip.  

“There were a ton of markets you could go to and really engage with the locals,” Kirkwood said. “I think we made a lot of local friends. It is branded ‘The Smiling Coast’ for a reason." 

In addition, some were able to visit the Bijilo Forest Park, a national park often known as Monkey Park, to learn about the efforts around sustainability and the conservation of the monkeys that reside there. 

 Giving back

The second component of Field Experience in Development is volunteerism: giving back to a local community in tandem with KidsGive, a scholarship program associated with Lawrence. The mission of KidsGive is to educate those in the U.S. about the life and culture of African communities. 

“The students both do field research and volunteer in community schools, so they help contribute to the places that they visit as well,” Skran said. 

Organized by junior Fanta Jatta, a neuroscience major from Madison, Wisconsin, the students visited Presentation of Mary Basic Cycle School in Brikama. Four of the 16 students came to The Gambia specifically to volunteer, attending the school daily to perform eye screenings for 400 students. They also helped an eye doctor with further examinations, and KidsGive furnished 32 students with much-needed glasses.  

Lawrence students pose with eye charts as they helped with eye exams.
Lawrence students, from left, Ken Penaherrera, Fanta Jatta, and Zakirul Khan, joined staff to help with eye screenings at the Presentation of Mary Basic Cycle School in Brikama as part of KidsGive. More than 400 students were screened.

Additional Lawrence students came to help with the screenings for one day of the week, which Wood said was a very eye-opening experience for her.  

“When I was very young, I started wearing glasses and contacts,” Wood said. “A lot of these older kids who were coming in had really bad vision, and they had been going through school not knowing that they needed these.” 

Lawrence and KidsGive also gave back in the form of sports fun, which Wood connected to her research. Before arriving at the school, Wood purchased sports equipment to be donated to the school, and Lawrence put on a field day for the students. They all spent the afternoon playing soccer and volleyball and conducting relay races.  

Wood said one of her favorite things about the day was seeing how dedicated some of the students were to their sport.  

“These boys ran all the way home, changed into their soccer uniforms and cleats, and came back because they wanted to show us how good they were at soccer,” Wood said.  

The day they were able to spend at the school was one of the most impactful parts of the entire trip for both Manzanera and Cao Le.   

“Just seeing how happy the kids were to see us, to interact with us, how excited they were,” Manzanera said, “that really made me very happy to see.” 

For Cao Le, the warm-heartedness of the kids made a big impact.  

“I feel like a few hours of playing with the kids made my heart feel so much love and kindness,” Cao Le said. “I definitely want to come back to that school again, all because of the experience with the people in The Gambia, the local people. They are so amazing, kind, and warm-hearted.” 

Community-engaged learning

One of the benefits of traveling as part of the class, the students agreed, was that they were able to explore the country deeper and at a different pace than a tourist. 

Kirkwood reflected on how the structure of the trip forced her outside of her comfort zone. Usually a planner and itinerary follower, she adapted to their pace and was able to “go with the flow.”  

“It really made me feel like I connected more with the people there,” Kirkwood said, “and just kind of enjoyed their presence as they enjoyed mine, and that was really nice.” 

Students present their research posters in the Steitz Atrium during Spring Term.
Students present their research posters in the Steitz Atrium during Spring Term.

Without the class, Wood thought she wouldn’t have gotten the same experience in The Gambia. 

“Going out into the cities, going into people’s homes, into the schools, I got to experience the country from a lot of its different aspects,” Wood said. “I’m happy that I got the experience to travel there and do this kind of research.” 

On May 15, the students presented their research posters in Steitz Atrium. The posters remain on display in Briggs Hall.