To the Wellesley Dean of Admission… a Gap Year update

[Note: this entry was originally sent to Wellesley in an email as a gap
year update, but I thought it fitting to post here as well since it
encompasses so much of my sojourn in Senegal thus far.]

To the Wellesley Dean of Admission,

I hope this email finds you well. I apologise for sending this so late in
the month. This February, Senegal is hosting its presidential elections and
it is rather difficult to connect to the Internet as everyone is on the net
and its capacity is not that high.

For the past 5 months I’ve been living with a host family in Touba Toul, a
predominantly agricultural town in the western region of Thies. I’ve been
living with a host mother and three siblings as well as some extended
family in our compound. My two apprenticeships have been working as a
teaching assistant in the local high school’s English classes and Club, as
well as learning to sew at one of the many tailor shops in my town. My
teaching apprenticeship has been particularly stimulating and eye-opening
as I’ve had to directly confront many of the problems within the Senegalese
education system while simultaneously placing these issues I’m observing in
my apprenticeship context in a global scale. Navigating the educational
sphere, especially classroom environments where I work with about 50
students every time, has proven to be quite a challenge. The lack of
resources and the inconvenient schedules have made this experience a truly
frustrating one and by default, have also prompted a lot of analysis about
the state of education everywhere, but especially in developing countries
such as Senegal. Something I’ve found really interesting is that the
English classes, unlike every other course, operate under the Communicative
Linguistic Teaching curriculum and because of it, English classes are
inherently engaging and seek to involve students in the learning process as
equals and not as inferiors; this has particularly caught my attention as
the principles at the core of this teaching curriculum resemble pedagogical
practices I had researched before, especially through Paulo Freire’s
writing, but, until now, had never witnessed in an
institutionalised/systemic application, with all its benefits and all its
practical complications.
Through my tailoring apprenticeship, I’ve gotten a very personal impression
of the Senegalese employment culture and the economic problems that
permeate the country. It has been a slow-paced experience and I’ve gotten
to focus on developing a new skill while also deepening my understanding of
the relationship between the laid-back culture and the absence of work
opportunities, as well as underlying and/or participatory factors
(colonisation, neocolonisation, and cultural clashes in a Western-dominated
economy, with a non-Western people and culture) and the local community’s
perception on and attitude towards this phenomenon. This year I’m also part
of the Fellows Across Countries Project, organised by Global Citizen Year,
which has deepened my awareness of issues not only in Senegal but Ecuador,
Brazil, and India as well and has facilitated my grasping of the
interconnectedness of the problems and issues we’ve identified in our host
countries and has galvanised us into taking ownership over the solutions in
a local scale while keeping in mind the need for global solutions and
international collaboration.

As it pertains to languages, I’ve been learning Wolof, the most widely
spoken language in Senegal; as much as it’s been a challenge, I’ve enjoyed
the process of learning a language fully through immersion for the first
time. Moreover, studying Wolof has enabled me to have an acute
understanding of the influence the French language has had in it and to
observe how the language encapsulates greater societal phenomenons (i.e.
the economic and political influence France as a nation-state still has
over the country) and to compare the structure of the language and
previously mentioned socio-cultural aspects with my own indigenous
language, K’iche’, in the Guatemalan context. I’ve also been able to focus
on my conversational and academic French, a language I studied throughout
high school and plan to continue focusing on in my college years. It has
been interesting to change from learning France’s French to speaking and
writing and listening to West African French. I’ve also been able to make
cross-regional comparisons in the use of French for the first time ever and
to be mesmerised at how a language changes as it proliferates, which has
further nurtured an appreciation for and interest in linguistics. Since my
host mom is an Arabic teacher, I’ve also been able to begin studying Arabic
– although I’ve solely focused on MSA, rather than on any of the spoken
dialects, as that’s the Arabic needed to understand the Qur’an (and thus
the one emphasised in this ultra-pious environment). Nonetheless, my
studies have allowed me not only to connect better with my mom, across the
existing Wolof barrier, but also to understand Islam in a more personal
way, which has been a rewarding endeavour given my existing intellectual
affection for Islamic military, political, and philosophical history.

Overall, it’s been a beautifully slow time – I’ve gotten to indulge in
meaningful boredom, to ask questions that are free of my opinions, and to
challenge myself to apply anthropological concepts in a pragmatic way. As
much as it has been a time to further explore the things I already knew I
liked – Islamic history, French, anthropology -, it has also been a time to
dwell into previously ignored areas of study and forms of leisure from
Western philosophy and West African literature to sketching and poem
writing. It has definitely been quite a year – a year filled with
unexpected realisations about the relationships I hold with the academic
fields I’m attracted to, of questioning the beliefs I carry unchallenged,
and of nourishing a desire to seek knowledge for the sake of it. I’m so
incredibly excited to join Wellesley College this upcoming fall and I thank
you for supporting me in taking this gap year, thusly allowing to have this
experience without sacrificing my admission to the College.

Please feel free to write me if there’s anything I left unclear.

Kind regards,

Phoebe Shea Perez