Penn Students Take on Peace, Water and Climate, First in Norway and Next in Ghana

One way to learn about climate change is to read about it, exploring the scientific literature, perusing science news and combing through reams of relevant data. Another way is to experience it firsthand.

A trio of University of Pennsylvania students elected for the latter approach during the International Youth Peace Conference, held this fall in Sogn og Fjordane, Norway.

“Norway is famous for having the largest glacier in mainland Europe, so one day we went hiking there and talked about the importance of mountains and glaciers in terms of looking at climate change,” said AnnaClaire Akoto, a junior from Wilmington, Del.

In Norway, Akoto, a biological basis of behavior major, along with fellow juniors Chiemela Ohanele, a biology major from El Dorado Hills, Calif., and Adoma Boateng, a psychology major from Ghana, gleaned lessons in the power of hands-on learning. They hope to apply these lessons to an educational program they are developing focusing on WASH, short for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, which they plan to roll out this summer at a high school in Ghana.

“We want to effect change in a very responsible, efficient and longitudinal way,” says Ohanele. “Our program is going to focus on project-based learning in order to empower the students to accomplish the change that they want to see in their immediate communities while also giving them a chance to stand on their own two feet.”

The three friends all have close ties to Africa; Boateng was born in the United States but moved to Ghana when she was 8, Akoto attended high school there and Ohanele has spent considerable time in both Ghana and Nigeria, where her parents are from. In the spring they were sharing stories about time spent in Africa and discussing their summer plans. Akoto, who had volunteered in medical clinics in Ghana in years past, recalled how a doctor had mentioned that simple changes in hygiene and sanitation practices could have a big impact on reducing the prevalence of common, yet devastating, diseases.

For Ohanele, that sparked an idea for an education-outreach program, in which she, Akoto and Boateng could leverage their knowledge to help students in Africa confront these challenges.

The three students began by reaching out to Stanley Laskowski, visiting scholar in the Master of Environmental Studies Program, who has expertise in water and sanitation issues and co-founded the Global Water Alliance, a Philadelphia-based non-profit focused on promoting projects that enhance access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

“We have lots of student involvement, we hold conferences and we send students to developing countries to do work on water and hygiene,” Laskowski says.

He was able to offer Akoto, Boateng and Ohanele background information and advice on specific issues that might be more important to highlight in their program as well as strategies for solidifying partnerships in the countries where they wanted to work.

“A key statistic I like to note is that, at least 1,000 children in the developing world die each day from a water-related problem, something very preventable,” says Laskowski.

The students, who plan to roll out their program this summer at a high school in Ghana and perhaps expand to other schools in subsequent years, will serve 30-50 students in grades 9 to 11. Their six-week program will entail two weeks focused on water and water-supply issues, two weeks on hygiene and the final two on sanitation.

For each topic, they’ll spend the first week conducting lectures and classroom-based discussions, then the second week developing and implementing a community-based project that addresses these issues locally.

“Our project is a way to empower these students to enable them to achieve at a higher level, even if it’s not with WASH,” Ohanele says. “We want to make them feel like they can achieve what they put their minds to and take on these issues as their own.”

Another goal for the project is to effect change in rural areas, where WASH issues are particularly critical to address.

“There’s a drastic difference between rural and city living,” says Akoto. “We’re hoping to reach kids who will go from the city back to their rural areas and open the eyes of their communities. The impact can just stretch out and get passed along.”

For Ohanele, Akoto and Boateng, the conference in Norway had a similar effect: Empowering them with knowledge that they can bring back to the U.S. and expand out to African students as well. They first learned about the conference from someone Laskowski had connected them with at the Fairmount Water Works. Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy provided support for their travel to Norway.

It was the first time in Scandinavia for all three. Reaching the remote area required a six-hour bus ride from Oslo and two ferries.

“It was beautiful,” Akoto says, “It looked like a screensaver on a Mac -- mountains, rivers everywhere.”

Once the program began, they found themselves amongst 33 students from a variety of nations, such as Norway, India, Gambia, Kenya and Fiji, ranging in age from their teens to late twenties. Over several days of discussion and trips, the Penn students got to know their fellow participants.

“Something that I really enjoyed was the fact that the whole conference enabled us to share our different experiences from our different backgrounds and gain awareness of things that were happening in other countries,” Boateng says.

One activity that made a particular impression was a Model United Nations, where students were asked to represent countries other than their own and discuss how to work together to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“One of the things that struck me from that activity was how many people are going to end up being displaced,” Akoto says. “Places like Fiji and Florida are predicted to be submerged so there will be concerns with overcrowding, even in more developed nations.”

Adds Ohanele, “We found out that people from other countries are almost inundated with U.S. news so they were very aware of what was happening, and it was interesting to see what they saw or thought of the U.S. either matched or didn’t match the way we see things.”

Looking ahead to their education program in Ghana, the Penn students hope to incorporate lessons from the conference, not just about climate change, though that will certainly impact WASH issues, but also on how to engage a diverse community.

“A big part of the success of our own project will be in stimulating the interest of our students and showing them to how to engage others,” says Akoto.

“It’s a domino effect,” Boateng notes. “We’ll create awareness, and the students will go on to create even more awareness.”