Elise Willer has carried a hefty academic load during her collegiate career at Wittenberg, majoring in both political science and French while carrying a religion minor as well.
But she has learned just as much outside the classroom.
Willer has been involved in a swing dance group, built homes with Habitat for Humanity, advocated for sustainability efforts through the campus environmental organization PoWER, and rowed with the crew team, a club organization known for rigorous year-round workouts. With a strong Lutheran background, she also completed community service work as an advocate for sexually abused children, and she even spent a semester studying in Washington, D.C.
Each of these activities has contributed something to Willer's educational experience at Wittenberg, but it was a study abroad program that had the most profound effect on her.
Willer originally planned to study in Brazil during the spring semester 2008 but instead found herself in Mali, an impoverished nation located in western Africa. The seventh largest country on the continent, Mali is landlocked, with the Sahara Desert in the north and the Niger and Senegal Rivers in the south. One of the poorest nations in the world, its economy is primarily based on agriculture.
It was to this land that Willer traveled to participate in a School of International Training (SIT) study abroad program. SIT offers a field-based, experiential approach to learning that focuses on critical global issues, undergraduate research and genuine cultural immersion.
"Programs that immerse students into the culture are challenging and difficult," explained JoAnn Bennett, director of Wittenberg's Office of International Education. "Students are learning from the culture, not about the culture, and that is especially difficult in a culture so radically different from our own."
Willer said the first eight weeks of her program included classes at the SIT in Mali, where 17 American students from prestigious universities, including Harvard, Yale and New York University, studied gender dynamics, health and development issues. They also learned the basics of Bambara, the primary language of the country.
As they moved out of the classrooms, the students spent several weeks visiting villages and cities.
"We saw so many projects that had been started - generations of materials, layers of work that flourished until funds ran out," Willer said. "Things (were) abandoned, left undone everywhere. It was apparent if the building started anew – the materials were different in appearance."
She learned first-hand from the cliff-dwelling tribes, the Dogon, and the craftsmen and farmers of the Niger River that the majority of people continue to live in their traditional ways.
Willer lived for a time with the family of a retired Malian ambassador. She also spent a week at the home of a villager, where she lived as they lived, helped with the daily chores and routines. She formed ties with her host mother,"Tanti," and helped care for the children. She ground millet with a mortar and pestle, and she learned how to maintain a home without electricity, plumbing or the smallest of conveniences.
She designed a research project around a women's co-op that had been organized in the 1970s, "The Club des Meres" (the club of mothers). The women started a neighborhood school and a co-op for arts and crafts articles to sell that continues today.
Willer helped them apply for a license from the International Fair Trade Association so they can market their projects, dolls and stuffed animals. Her research took four to five weeks and included a 30-page paper written entirely in French.
"These women understand that education is crucial," Willer said. "Their strength is amazing. I lived with them and they taught me how to do simple things."
She said that even the simple things are extremely difficult and time consuming for the Malians.
"On one occasion, during the dry season, the temperature was 110 degrees," she said. "I was given a glass of ice water, freezing cold water. It was such a luxury. I find I want to remind people to be thankful for things they take for granted."
"The hot smells; the flies – but I got to leave," Willer said. "I experienced an overwhelming sense of guilt in having no needs, no wants."
"The sustainability work is both PoWER and (more) importantly Student Senate," Willer said. "My position as Student Senate Green Liaison is a position appointed by the Senate President (Jon Duraj). I see my sustainability work on our campus being driven by a passion that comes partially from that guilt I feel coming back from Mali."
Willer added that since she can't continue working with the women at the Club des Meres, she can't make a difference there, but she can here, on Wittenberg's campus.
Following graduation, Willer will teach at Concordia Language Villages, the most extensive language and culture immersion camp in the United States, and she is waiting to hear about a teaching opportunity in France next fall.
- Written by Phyllis Eberts '00
- Photo by Erin Pence
Additional photos submitted by Elise Willer '09