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Learning through service, living through adventure

Posted June 22, 2018
By Rebecca Tucker and Cole Lowery, students who were on the trip.


The School of Journalism and Mass Communications offers a variety of outside-the-classroom experiences to give students real-world experience and push them beyond their comfort zones. But one particular class takes that idea to the extreme.

Over a 15-day period in June, 12 USC students and three SJMC professors visited Malawi, Africa, the sixth poorest country in the world, to immerse themselves in a different culture, help rural communities, learn the power of storytelling and go on an adventure. The students went to Africa with ideas about stories they wanted to tell, including medical care and vulnerable children. They left not only with endless photos, videos and interviews, but with a new outlook on life.

“Doing service made me realize that I still take things for granted and that I need to take a step back sometimes,” said visual communications major Valencia Abraham in her trip reflection. “To put down my phone for a few days to feed kids, take vitals, play with babies, organize meds and so on really opened my eyes.”

The students partnered with a Malawian Non-Governmental Organization called Ministry of Hope to do service work in two villages and a crisis nursery. Prior to the trip, the students participated in a project to raise funds for the organization and they used this money to purchase and hand out blankets, buy medications for a mobile medical clinic and formula for the crisis nursery. The students participated in a day-long mobile medical clinic, taking vital signs, packaging prescription medications and assisting in malaria testing for 658 patients, many of whom walked miles for the chance to receive medical treatment.

“I was amazed at the dedication, hard work and ‘heart’ our students put into helping the people of Malawi,” says Dr. Andrea Tanner, director of the SJMC. Tanner co-led the study abroad experience with faculty members Van Kornegay and Scott Farrand

“Several of the students on the trip had never been out of the country, and one had never been on a plane,” Tanner says. “Despite the drastically different food and culture — and lack of electricity, clean bathrooms and drinkable water — our students were focused on giving back to the community and learning about the numerous challenges Malawians face, such as poverty and lack of healthcare and education.”

More than 83 percent of Malawians live in rural villages, and over a 24-hour period, the class learned firsthand what life with no electricity, plumbing or potable water is like. After pitching tents, the team spent the evening entertaining the village children and enjoying a traditional meal that was cooked over a fire by women in the community. The next day, the class walked the countryside to learn about village life and helped serve a meal to more than 100 vulnerable children. The Malawi culture inspired the students to return from Africa more thankful, caring and generous.

“Malawi has made me re-examine my life and what truly matters,” said broadcast major Jamie Gilbert-Fitzpatrick. “All the material things, social media and tiny problems in my life do not matter. What matters is that I’m always putting out good energy and always helping others, because at the end of the day we are all in this life together.”

Beyond the service learning component of the trip, the students also had a chance to experience the unique landscape, wildlife and natural beauty the country has to offer. They completed an “extreme” hike to the summit of Mount Nkhoma, kayaked across Lake Malawi and camped for two nights on a remote island, getting uncomfortably close to elephants, hippos and crocodiles while visiting Liwonde National Park.

“After long days of getting our hands dirty and working hard to serve the people of Malawi, it was great to get outdoors and take some time to play,” says Ryleigh Rawson, an Honors College sophomore majoring in public health. “From kayaking to hiking mountains to really getting up close with elephants, this was an adventure of a lifetime.”

A year ago, most of the students could not pinpoint Malawi on a world map. Now, the small country will forever hold a special place in their hearts. The trip provided ample opportunity for them to learn how to be journalists and mass communicators through capturing pictures and shooting videos, but they left the continent with much more than just new skills. Students had hoped that they would have a small impact on Africa; what they didn’t expect was for Africa to have such a large impact on them.