A photo of a woman feeding a giraffe
Ailita Whalen participated in the Eastern Africa Development and Democracy program as a teaching assistant. (Contributed photo)

Busy trip to East Africa finally brings study abroad dream to fruition for VCU undergrad

As a teaching assistant for the program on development and democracy, international studies major Ailita Whalen helped lead fellow students to five countries.

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Ailita Whalen spent more than three weeks this summer as a teaching assistant in East Africa, and for the senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, the experience was a long time coming.

Whalen, who is majoring in international studies in the School of World Studies and minoring in environmental studies and nonprofit management, had always wanted to study abroad, but she began college in 2020. Caught in the early grip of the pandemic’s travel restrictions, she could only stare longingly at the lost opportunities.

“I sort of looked at the study abroad website over and over again, seeing the 'No study abroad, no study abroad, no study abroad,’” Whalen said.

As restrictions lifted, she was in a class led by Douglas Kimemia, Ph.D., an assistant professor of political science in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences. He told Whalen that he was the lead for a program going to East Africa and was encouraging students to go. After discussing her finances and receiving the teaching assistant position, she decided to take the leap and go.

The program – Eastern Africa Development and Democracy – took students through Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. The course was split into two segments focusing on the political environment and the overall development of the countries.

“This study abroad trip in particular is really unique in terms of the countries you visit and the amount of travel you do in such a short amount of time,” Whalen said. “I think they said that we covered 10% of the continent of Africa in less than a month.”

Students visited the parliaments of all five countries, the United Nations Development Programme and a nonprofit to look at the relationship between government, global nonprofits and local nonprofits in East Africa.

A photo of several people walking towards a large building.
Students visited Kabaka’s Palace in Uganda during the multi-week trip. (Contributed photo)

“Going to Europe is cool, but this is just a very, very unique experience – going into parliament and speaking to leaders. We don't even get to talk to our own politicians the way that we got to talk to politicians there,” Whalen said.

As a teaching assistant, she helped make sure students were taken care of during their journey.

“There was a lot of coordination, a lot of travel, a lot of exhaustion, some sickness, some scary moments,” Whalen said. “My role, as more of a leader in the sense, was just making sure everybody's feeling alright and we're getting through the day.”

She also took photos of the trip and created a video for future promotional use.

A highlight of the trip was exploring Africa’s natural landscape. While in Tanzania, the group visited a hot spring, which Whalen said was more like an oasis. A local resident showed her an underwater cave, and though reluctant at first to swim, she was rewarded with a breathtaking view for her leap of faith.

“That was one of the times that we really hung out with locals,” she said.

Whalen strongly encourages students to study abroad, as college can offer the time to do so before a career may limit the opportunity.

“This really is a really special time to travel around, especially if you haven't traveled,” she said. “It's a good way to travel organized and without some of that stress of planning – it's all taken care of. You just gotta show up and put on your best face.”

For more information about VCU’s study abroad opportunities visit global.vcu.edu/abroad.