In January, a group of Wagner students spent two weeks experiencing many firsts in Ghana, West Africa.

Some of the students were traveling abroad for the first time; and, even if they had many stamps in their passports already, most were being introduced to Africa. For others, the trip allowed them to see their home through a new lens. Most of the students took their first taste of jollof rice, a popular West African dish; others learned to enjoy it Ghana-style.

Everyone learned to paint walls and lay brick; some helped local fishermen pull in their nets for a dawn catch; and most climbed a thousand feet above the ground to walk across the rainforest canopy on suspension bridges.

Wagner students and faculty pose for a group shot with the principal in front of the New Horizon Special School.
Working at hospitals and schools such as New Horizon, for children with special needs, let the Wagner group engage with everyday life in Ghana. “This act of kindness you did today is going to go a long way,” said New Horizon Principal Vanessa Adu-Akorsahm (purple dress). “It is going to bind us as a community, like a golden chain that is holding us to you.”

For those who had always experienced life as an ethnic minority in the U.S., just walking the streets was empowering. “To be around a sea of black people was beautiful,” says Cynedra Osinaike ’19, a Chicago native of African-American and Nigerian heritage.

The students also toured historic sites with a profound and dark history — the slave fortresses where captured people waited in dehumanizing conditions before being shipped to the “New World.”

Students listen to a guide as they stand in a dark room in Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.
Students listen to a guide in one of the rooms at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.

It was a time of firsts for Curtis Wright, Wagner’s dean of campus life and chief diversity officer, as well. He has lived on the U.S. East Coast for 11 years, yet he dipped his feet into the Atlantic Ocean for the first time on this trip, which was also his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa.

“It was really powerful to share this trip with the students,” Wright says. His relationships with the students deepened as they all absorbed the life and history of Ghana. “I think that struggle has challenged them to the core of who they are, and led them to question: What does it mean to be a black man? What does it mean to be an American? For me, it’s been very powerful to watch that internal struggle.”

Wagner Campus Life staff organized this “alternative winter break” in partnership with the Aya Centre for Intercultural Awareness and Development in Ghana. Financial support came from Beth ’71 and Henry ’71 Cruz and from the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE). Photographers Jonathan Harkel of Wagner’s Office of Communications and Marketing and Deanna Harkel joined the group to document their experiences.

Read more about the trip and see more photos on the trip blog.