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Alumni Voices: Reflections on a semester in Dakar, Senegal

Sara Hess is a CIEE alumna who studied abroad in Dakar in the spring of 2007. She graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in economics in 2008. Every job she's had since then has evolved to focus on sub-Saharan Africa. She is currently a research associate at Harvard Business School. She shared these thoughts on how her experience with CIEE in Senegal has had an impact on her personal and professional life. 

One of the most precious memories I have is of wondering the streets of Mermoz with friends one evening, sipping on sweet mint tea with our host brothers and sisters, and stopping by to visit the tailors as their sewing machines whirled late into the night in preparation for the Grand Magal. Aside from the wonderful sentimental images memories like this, my experience with CIEE in Dakar has had a lasting impact on my life both personally and professionally. 

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A small rural village outside of Dakar, where Sara participated in a week-long volunteer project in collaboration with a Peace Corps volunteer. (Photo credit: Sara Hess)

On a personal level, I met two of my best friends in the world in Dakar. This is the sort of thing that happens when you spend long hours crushed in a sept place together. (Sept places are the cramped station wagons that are used for long haul public transport in Senegal).  

I'll never forget the morning when my Muslim host mother made me get out of bed early to attend mass on Easter Sunday. "I'm not even Catholic, Maman," I told her. I am Christian and that was close enough in Maman's eyes so out the door I went dressed in my Sunday best. For someone who grew up in a small town in the U.S. without a great deal of exposure to religious diversity, Senegal was a fascinating and enlightening experience. I quickly came to understand that Muslims and Christians can and do live together in a peaceful and culturally rich environment with complete respect and reverence for one another's beliefs and practices-- a fact that the global media today very rarely highlights.

"Studying abroad in Senegal is indeed not the standard option and it is not for the faint of heart, but it is a wonderful choice for those with an adventurous spirit, great curiosity, and a desire to show future employers that they are willing to take on challenges and step outside of their comfort zones."

On a professional level, just yesterday I was in a job interview when the recruiter remarked, "I'm really impressed that you chose to study abroad in Dakar. Tell me about that." My experiences with CIEE Dakar have helped me to succeed in getting numerous job offers. In my first job after undergrad, when I worked for a private consulting firm, I was hired in large part due to my experience studying in West Africa and was consequently regularly sent on business trips to West and Central Africa. 

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Sara learns how to tie a skirt for a traditional Senegalese dinner. (Photo credit: Sarah Hess) 

My experience with CIEE Dakar also played a role in securing my current position as a Research Associate at Harvard Business School, where I co-authored one of the school's first positively toned case studies focused on a sub-Saharan African business conglomerate. There is no doubt that large swaths of Africa are experiencing significant economic growth, including Senegal, and there is a greater demand now from both private sector companies and NGOs and non-profits for individuals with experience working and living in sub-Saharan Africa.

I can't begin to tell you the number of times that my Wolof language skills have come in handy. I've used them to greet Senegalese citizens that I've met in Paris, Florence, Brussels, and New York and have always received surprised and very joyful responses in return. My elementary Wolof skills have also been the subject of curious enquiry in job interviews. I think putting Wolof on my resume shows recruiters that I'm serious about learning the local language wherever I work. This is crucial for anyone interested in doing international development work.

Studying abroad in Senegal is indeed not the standard option and it is not for the faint of heart, but it is a wonderful choice for those with an adventurous spirit, great curiosity, and a desire to show future employers that they are willing to take on challenges and step outside of their comfort zones. 

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Do you have a story to share about your CIEE experience? Email alumni@ciee.org

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