Alumna Navigates Life in Africa

June 5, 2008     

Illinois Wesleyan University alumna Shannon O’Rourke greeted children during her travels to Senegal on a Rotary Ambassador Scholarship.

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. –Illinois Wesleyan University alumna Shannon O’Rourke, an international studies and political science double major while at Illinois Wesleyan, took an off-beat route to her interest in Africa.

“I actually realized I wanted to go to Africa when I was studying abroad in Switzerland during my junior year,” said O’Rourke, a 2007 Illinois Wesleyan graduate who recently returned from spending six months in Senegal on a Rotary Cultural Ambassador Scholarship.  While in Switzerland, her study abroad research project involved working with a World Trade Organization representative from Tanzania. “Something simply clicked in my head and I thought, ‘I am going to go to Africa.’”

O’Rourke discovered the Rotary scholarship, which would allow her to study Arabic in Tanzania or French in Senegal. “I’d already studied French in college and high school for  a few years, so I decided on Senegal,” she said.

The scholarship required her to study 225 hours of French with a professor at a small language school in Senegal’s capitol city of Dakar. Driving from the Dakar airport with her host family, O’Rourke realized she had stepped into a new world. “I spent the entire 20-minute drive staring out the window because everything looked so different. I had never seen anything like it.”

While adapting to life in Senegal, O’Rourke realized early she needed to throw out the fast pace to which she was accustomed. “My first day of school, my host brothers walked me to class and it took 20 to 25 minutes to get there,” said O’Rourke. “When I finally figured out where I was going and could walk on my own, taking the same route, it took me 10 minutes. I realized I walk faster than people there, so I learned to slow it down.”

The Michigan native found herself navigating more than her route to school. Along with learning French, O’Rourke also studied Wolof, one of the many other languages spoken in Senegal. “Most people can speak French in Dakar because the country was once a French colony, but once you get outside the city, fewer people speak it.  The most common language in the area is Wolof, which was tough for me to learn because I’m a visual learner, and the language isn’t generally written down, so I had to learn it by ear.”

O’Rourke helped distribute books to African high schools during an internship with 10,000 Girls, a not-for-profit organization which aims to educate young women in Senegal.

O’Rourke extended her scholarship in Senegal by taking on an internship with 10,000 Girls, a not-for-profit organization which offers educational opportunities to young women in Senegal. The internship, helping to create a bookmobile and distribute books to area high schools, took O’Rourke to the city of Koalack. “There was one English teacher who came and filled his car with books for his students. He continued to thank and thank us. Textbooks are rare in Senegalese high schools. Most students simply write down everything the teacher says,” said O’Rourke. 

During her stay, she also assisted the Rotary in Dakar by translating documents into English that will help the club raise funds for a new maternity clinic in the Diourbel region of the country. “In Senegal, over half the population lives below the poverty line and unemployment is about 48 percent right now,” said O’Rourke. “The maternal mortality rate is high, particularly outside of Dakar. Better health care and prenatal care that reaches more women and children is instrumental in bringing the death rate down.”

Though O’Rourke is back in the United States and speaking to Rotary groups and other audiences about her travels, she plans to return to Africa someday. “It was an incredible experience, and I have sisters and brothers I would really like to see again in Senegal,” she said of her host families.  “I loved the work that I did, both with Rotary and with 10,000 Girls. Healthcare and girls’ education are two things that I’m passionate about, so I was blessed to be able to work on both issues during my time in Senegal.”

This fall, O’Rourke plans to attend George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and earn her master’s degree in international development. She intends to focus her studies on the necessary role that women play in development, as well as the importance of girls’ education and basic healthcare.

 Rachel Hatch (309) 556-3960