To the Wellesley Dean of Admission… a Gap Year update

Phoebe Shea Perez - Senegal

March 18, 2019

[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

Phoebe Shea Perez