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MSID Kenya - Coffee Farming, Safaris, and Swahili: Kaitlyn Sprangler

Posted: January 16, 2015

Kaitlyn is a Community, Evironment, Development major. "Going to Kenya was a childhood dream, and I know I have now gained the confidence of taking on any challenge life brings my way through fulfilling this dream."
On top of the world at Peak Lenana of Mount Kenya on Easter Morning

On top of the world at Peak Lenana of Mount Kenya on Easter Morning

Ever since I was ten years old, I longingly dreamt of traveling to Kenya. Perhaps this undying curiosity stemmed from the numerous times I watched the Lion King or the Google.

Images of the beautiful Maasai tribe, but regardless, this desire only increased with time. By the time I reached Penn State, I was convinced that an entire semester abroad in Kenya was arguably crucial to my learning experience; I was determined to make this happen at all costs. Luckily, with the help of the outstanding and supportive staff at Penn State through the Global Programs Department, College of Agricultural Sciences and Liberal Arts, and my multiple advisers, this dream quickly became a reality. During spring semester of my Sophomore year, I traveled to Kenya for four entire months to study International Development, and for this immense privilege, I could not be more grateful.

The Minnesota Studies of International Development program in Kenya encompasses an array of interests throughout their curriculum- a particularly attractive feature to a student double majoring in Anthropology and Community, Environment, Development such as me. I chose to specialize in the Environment and Sustainability Track of the program throughout my studies. Therefore, for the first two months of the semester, the entire group of sixteen students from University of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Chicago ( was one of two from Penn State) stayed in Nairobi, the capital city, to attend classes on development and Swahili together. We stayed with separate host families and went to class every week day from 8:30 to 3:30. These classes were intense and rich in hands-on learning, featuring trips to local markets to practice Swahili, Kibera slum to witness wealth inequality, and the United Nations to attend a student environmental conference. The experiential learning of these classes, as well as the expertise of the Kenyan professors from Nairobi University was incomparable to any educational experience I had been through thus far.

For the last two months of this program, each student was placed in an individually-selected internship across Kenya to cater to everyone's specific interests. I was placed with a Catholic organization called Caritas: Nyeri in the central province of Kenya, specifically Mukurweini District, assigned to a five-year project called Green Mountain Coffee Roasters' Livelihoods Project that worked to increase food security for the Mukurweini District. This district has historically been a coffee-dependent area, and the profits of this export-based economy are highly inconsistent and insufficient. Thus, as an intern, I participated in the implementation of this project by aiding in office records and paperwork, helping to distribute dairy goats for the beneficiary families, and allocating seedlings of bananas and beans to supplement the coffee fields. Additionally, I even helped in the fields of some demonstration farms planting the coffee and banana plant crops. Concurrently, I stayed with a host family of two 75-year old coffee farmers, who owned two dairy cows and a small subsistence farm. The culture, tradition, rural lifestyle, and genuine love I learned and developed for this family is nearly inexpressable.

Aside from the classes and internship, I traveled significant within Kenya and Tanzania, and even climbed Mount Kenya during the four-day Easter Holiday break. I feel extremely privileged to have acquired and utilized the resources to experience these travels and trips. I perceive all of these experiences as a whole to have contributed significantly to my undergraduate studies of rural development, as well as helped my grow greatly as a person. Through the classes I took in Nairobi, I learned an extensive curriculum of the development in Kenya, specifically through an environmental lens, that have helped me understand the array of issues and success in this field for future focus. I have also significantly expanded upon my Swahili skills by being forced to apply my skills in the market, restaurants, class, and other forms of discussion; I consider myself to be proficient in this language currently. Additionally, we were required to complete four term papers to expand upon our existing notions of development and the environment as well that really helped me back my experiences with scholarly research and existing studies in academia. I perceive these papers to be beneficial starting points for future papers and possible theses topics. Concerning my internship, this experience was highly valuable in all aspects of learning about fieldwork; for six weeks, I had to be flexible and understanding in the differing values in time, schedule, and priorities. From this, I learned how to communicate more effectively with my coworkers, show dedication to my project by always trying to help out, and transforming my perspective of work and learning by being open-minded to all experiential learning experiences. It may not always be flashy and glamorous, but especially upon my return, I have recognized that these experiences allowed me to become more patient, willing, and tolerant.

Not only was this experience personally influential, but I am convinced that it is an important and progressive step professionally. As I have already experienced in recent interview experiences, this semester abroad in Kenya provided me with the confidence to pursue future endeavors with assurance that I can handle anything that comes my way. From dealing with a language barrier, to making smart safety decisions, to expressing cultural respect to areas of strict tradition and religious beliefs, I am sure that this experience will progress me in prospective employments by helping me identify what I am good at, what I am interested in, and how the world works beyond my immediate reality. All in all, I could not adequately express my gratitude and appreciation for these four months in the place of my childhood dreams. Asante sana, na siwezi kurudi tena! (Thank you so much, and I cannot wait to go back!)