GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Don’t Rain on my Presentation – LSWE Camp Day 3

Thursday 08/16/18

Gillian Minnehan, Sophomore Engineering Student, SWE at UM

A rainy Monrovian morning

Today we woke to the pitter patter of rain against the roof of our apartment: the first Liberian rainstorm of the trip. Courtney, Olivia, and I did our morning core exercises (nobody wanted to go for a run in the rain) before showering and making our way to the dining hall for a light breakfast of hard boiled eggs and cinnamon rolls.

We began the third day of camp with Lauren’s presentation on resumes and how to present using PowerPoint. Lauren is by far the most animated person of the UM students, and she did not disappoint today during her presentation. She happily demonstrated poor examples of presenting with a level of hilarity that rarely seen during dreaded PowerPoint presentations. The students were laughing and enjoying themselves despite a long morning of slides.

Noon rolled around, and we ambled to the dining hall to fill up on Charlotte’s (our caterer) staple: piles of rice and well-seasoned, fried chicken and fish. We ate quickly and headed back earlier than usual so that we could prep the room and charge our computers in anticipation of our afternoon guest speaker. Many of the students showed up early, as we requested, so our speaker wouldn’t be waiting on us. Turns out he didn’t come right at 1:30pm so in the meantime, we participated in a team building activity. We broke into teams of 4-5 people and gathered our supplies: 20 pieces of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, and one marshmallow. The goal: create the tallest free-standing structure that can support a marshmallow with the given supplies. I have done this activity back home  a few times, as have the other UM students, but the Liberian students were in for a new experience. Somehow, all the groups ended up producing the same teepee-like structure. Arguments and laughter filled the air, and increased as Chris called out the passing minutes. My team practically gave up part-way through when we realized we needed a base for our structure, but we didn’t have enough spaghetti or time left to fix our mistake. Before we knew it – time was up! A chaotic round of yells and laughter immediately followed; all the teams except one had failed to keep the marshmallow aloft.

While we were working on our marshmallow activity, our guest speaker, Augustus Gonanue, the Executive Director of the Rural and Renewable Energy Agency (RREA), arrived. As soon as we finished cleaning up the smushed marshmallows and broken spaghetti, all eyes turned to the gentleman on stage. Augustus introduced himself and immediately thanked Melinda for inviting him back to his alma mater. Soon enough, he jumped into the main topic of his speech: the role that renewable energy has and will have in Liberia.

Augustus Gonanue – the Executive Director at the Rural and Renewable Energy Agency

Hearing from someone currently in the middle of the struggle towards addressing Liberia’s energy concerns was an incredible opportunity for the students considering that the renewable energy case study that will make up the majority of camp time next week. I am really excited to see what the teams come up with between now and our final presentations next Thursday. Energy is a major problem in Liberia, like many countries, including the US. If these young, motivated, bright female engineers recognize and understand the energy problem in Liberia, and additionally research and develop a solution to it, they will already be forward-thinkers in their field. It is one thing to look around and identify a problem in your community and country; it is a whole other thing to take the time and energy (pun intended) to identify a solution. The students asked tons of thoughtful questions once Augustus finished his talk. After the last student was satisfied with his response to her question, Augustus bid us goodbye.

A Liberian sunset

In the evening sunset was beautiful – brilliant oranges and pinks shining behind some straggling rain clouds. The night ended with a collaborative effort by the entire UM team to prep materials and ideas for the next day’s activities.

GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Membership, Solar Cells, and Plantains – oh my!

Wednesday 8/15/2018

Melinda Kothbauer, Computer Engineering, BSE ‘18, SWE at UM

Christian Greenhill, Materials Science & Engineering, Ph.D., GradSWE at UM

The second day of camp began with remembering everyone’s names. Each person was responsible for stating everyone’s name that had gone before them before introducing themselves again and saying their own name. It became increasingly difficult, but made for healthy amounts of repetition leading to better name retention! Of course the room was filled with a lot of laughter at the slightest hesitation indicating a forgotten name.

After brief introductions, the LSWE students spent the morning thinking about their organization: “How do you generate interest in LSWE?”, “How do you utilize members to their fullest potential?”, and “How do you retain membership over time?”. Gillian Minnehan, sophomore in Computer Science led this workshop by breaking students into groups to discuss each of the different questions. The students then shared their ideas for implementable ideas in each of the categories. The LSWE camp hosts both current and new members to the organization, so the ideas generated came from diverse perspectives.

Have you ever made solar cells from berry juice? Probably not yet, but that’s exactly what we did this afternoon at the LSWE camp! There’s a molecule in raspberries, blackberries, and cherries, called anthocyanin, that absorbs light very well. We built a device that extracts electrons from the illuminated anthocyanin in the berries to create current or electricity. But you won’t find many fresh anthocyanin-rich berries in tropical places like Liberia. You’ll mostly find juicy pineapples and sweet plantains like the ones we had at  breakfast and lunch. Christian Greenhill, Ph.D. student in materials science and electrical engineering, managed to smuggle frozen blackberries wrapped in aluminum foil in an insulated lunch box with to ice packs into the tropics. We learned about renewable energy, solar technology and everyone built their own solar cells. We had fun measuring the voltages. Our highest voltage indoors (not in direct sunlight) was 358 mV from a 2x2cm cell – pretty impressive.

After a long day of organization development and hands-on engineering, all the students – UM and LSWE alike – retreated to the dining hall for a scrumptious ending to the day including sauteed chicken or fish with vegetables and fried plantains. The UM team spent the evening all together prepping for the next day at camp – packing supplies, finalizing presentations, and discussing our progress so far! We are excited to see what’s in store next.

GradSWE Overseas, Liberia, Uncategorized

Getting Along in Liberia – Camp Day 1

Tuesday 8/14/18

Lauren Long, BME, UmichGradSWE, Masters Student

After a long trip of flying from Detroit, Michigan to Newark, New Jersey to Brussels, Belgium to Freeport, Sierra Leone to Monrovia, Liberia, the first day of camp kicked off well. The start of the day included a cattle spotting, delicious homemade coffee, and meeting Ellen (our lovely caretaker)!

Breakfast consisted of delicious donuts, plain or with cinnamon sugar, and hard boiled eggs – yum! After breakfast we got to work talking about orientation (presented by the amazing and fearless Melinda), group introductions, the Do’s & Don’ts of working together at camp. The discussion ranged from being nice to your neighbor, respecting each other and making sure camp has lively activities. Quinnetta, an LSWE member since 2015, emphasized that we are all here to work together, and learn from each other.

Donuts and boiled eggs for breakfast!


After orientation and introductions it was time for lunch, this writer’s favorite part of the day. During the scorching walk to the cafeteria , University of Michigan students and Liberian students got to know each other and conversed about the excitement of camp. Lunch was a flavorful Jalloffed rice with chicken seasoned with black pepper, fried plantains.

After lunch we headed back to the classroom. The afternoon included a presentation about DISC profiles or personality/learning/group work styles (presented by Lauren). Through this everyone got to work together, discuss, and try to survive. The main event of the afternoon was the survival simulation called “Lost at Sea.” The object is to pick 15 different items you think you need to survive while lost at sea, everyone does it individually and as a group. The results are compared to the coast guards recommended list. Then people can see if they survived or not. The winning team: Akewah, Harriet, Angie, Felicia, and Olivia survived the longest. The overall message from the workshop was communication and understanding each other.

Chris and Maima deliberating on the “Lost at Sea” exercise.

After the group learning workshop, Melinda hosted a variety of team building activities. The first activity brought everyone to their feet, standing in a circle, one person in the middle. The chosen middle person states something that their friends enjoy, then everyone who also likes that moves to a new spot in the circle, the last person left in the circle repeats the exercise. This continued with a lot of laughing, giggling, and even an innovation with water bottles indicating the open spots.

The next activity was a spectrum opinion sharing, where there are four spots in the room that say “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” “strongly disagree.” Melinda then said a statement, each person then decides to move to the location of  strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree. Melinda then asks a person from each group to share their opinion. The questions started out basic – “Forks are better than spoons,” “Math is more fun than science.” They then progressively got more poignt. The most memorable discussion was “Engineering is necessary for Liberian development.” Strong opinions came from Quinetta, Bettina, and Angie. Quinetta disagreed on the basis that Liberians need to change their mentality towards development for engineering to be successful. Countering, Angie and Bettina stated the reason they are in engineering is to gain the knowledge and skills to convince people that engineering solutions will increase development. After this lively discussion, everyone headed off to a quick break at the apartments, and then on to dinner.

“All my friends….” 

Dinner was a delicious, tasty, fried fish (bone in), with salad, and bread. The fish was a little hard to debone in the dark (electricity is not always on), but was well worth the work. After dinner the Liberian students with some UM students gathered to dance, and hang out before bed.

The first day was bustling, busy, and bright. It was a great start to an amazing collaboration!


GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Final reflections – SUCCESS Camp 2017

A large blue suitcase, gently rocking in the seats beside me, presses against my shoulder with varying amounts of its weight depending on the current road condition. A little more on an uneven side road, a little less on a paved main street. Always as a friendly reminder that it is still there beside me. I’m neatly packed into the backseat of the car along with half of our luggage, on our way to downtown Monrovia from Fendell campus for our final few nights in country. The rest of the UM team fit into the first car, and seeking some moments for thought, I volunteered to travel with the rest of our belongings in the second car. Which is how I found myself situated between Edith and our driver, Thomas, both seated in the front, suitcases and ActionPacker tubbies stacked to the interior roof in the trunk and to my immediate left. On my right, a view of Monrovia through a window streaked with dirt.

Camp had concluded in the two days prior. Thursday was Flag Day, a holiday in Liberia to commemorate approving the flag’s design and establishing the republic. Thursday was also our last full day of camp activities. The morning contained two final engineering demos, recreating a coastal oil seep in a plastic cup and combining various materials to form reinforced concrete “hockey pucks”. It was a mess of fun – sand, soil, concrete mixed in white paper bowls.

Thursday engineering activities
Re-creating a coastal oil seep

The afternoon, melting into the evening, was one extended celebration. To begin, we were split into three teams: red, blue, and white. We assembled on the soccer field, below our feet the deep crimson earth rich in iron. Two lines drawn in the dirt, separated by fifteen yards. A series of small competitions between the teams ensued. It was a field day, a sports day, a play day, an end-of-camp jamboree. The first clash was a race to one side of the line and back. The catch: coming back, you had to be hopping, both feet inside a sack. I was chosen as the representative for the white team. Jackie and Maria lined up next to me from the red and blue teams. We were even at the far line, the halfway point. I struggled to stuff my size nines into the small sack. I looked ahead and saw Jackie with a lead, so I began jumping like mad. The race tightened. With a few feet to go, the line in the dirt rapidly approaching, I took a final leap. Hanging in the air before falling fast to the ground, sliding headfirst with my feet still secured inside the sack. I rolled over to look up at my teammates. The dive had earned me the win. Two colors of red mingling on my left knee, a worthy battle wound.

The dive for the win!
Another dive, but not for the win
Aeriel and Gloria representing the white team

After supper, we all met back in the dining hall for a more formal Flag Day celebration, followed by a T-shirt signing party. We said the Pledge of Allegiance of Liberia, sang the national anthem. Awaakeh described the symbolism of the Liberian flag. Then armed with permanent markers and bearing plain white T’s, we embarked on another journey. Someone turned the music way up. Dancing began. Innocent photos of two campers turned into strained selfies with dozens of people. My ears were ringing on the walk back to the apartment.

Setting up for the Flag Day celebrations

Back in the car, snapshots, small moments, pieces of conversations from the camp floated just above my head as the road took me farther away from Fendell. I had asked the campers to complete post-camp surveys on Thursday, but I hadn’t had my own opportunity to do the same until now. Reflections from camp mixed with a stream of glimpses from the outside, inseparable and difficult to process. Raw chicken thighs for sale at a roadside stand. The word “REMOVE” spray-painted on the side of a building. The smell of exhaust and earth and mildew. Boys napping on wooden benches. Edith and Thomas having a lively conversation about the upcoming election. I only catch snippets – a politician’s name, a mention of a rally. Large patches of standing water. Items for sale displayed on the side of the road as the rain starts to fall – wooden bed frames, metal doors, plastic sunglasses.

We pull to the side of the road to pick up Yamah from her house. I wasn’t aware this was a part of the plan, but I’m not jarred. Maybe when I’d first arrived, high strung from a minced, scheduled life in the US, but not now. We readjust the blue suitcase to sit solely in the middle seat. Yamah claims another, rather small, window spot. I can’t see her because of my oversized neighbor, but I know she’s there. In Liberia, it seems there is constant change. Not in an upheaving way – small adjustments, plans made and remade. Discussing and confirming and discussing and reconfirming. Squeezing another passenger into the backseat. Waiting for one more person to get ready.

There is this deep sense of compassion here, pervasive in each interaction. Sharing food, charging cords, notebooks, pens, clothes. Making room for one more, two more, five more. Repeated patterns of impassioned debate, even outright arguing, followed by forgiveness. Liberia has been dealt many challenging hands – brutal civil wars and the Ebola outbreak to name only two. Many Liberians carry scars still fresh from losing family members. In the face of all of this, the kindness and the closeness is remarkable. Friends holding hands, linking arms, hugging tightly. The loss of personal space was somewhat uncomfortable for me when I first arrived. I wasn’t used to someone approaching me and enveloping my hands with their own, embracing me warmly. But later I found myself yearning for it, thinking back on the place I came from seeming now a little colder.

We lurch over a speed bump. Campaign signs plastered over walls, on cars and on storefront doors. Yamah has now been integrated into the election conversation, and every so often, she implores me to understand her side. There seems to be an unrest about the future elections, a wish for peaceful transition of power. The hope of many Liberian women I have met. These dreams for their country are often blended intimately with their personal goals. Many of the women at camp have expressed interest in graduate school in the US, Europe, other countries in Africa. Many of these same women then mention returning to Liberia afterward, desires to bring their skills and education back to lift up their communities, their home.

Stopped at a light, men and women pass by the car window with food items for sale – chocolates, water in bags, wrapped pillow bread. Edith offers me local almonds roasted on a stick. Pedestrians weave through slow moving traffic to cross wide streets. A giant billboard in the distance advertising a local beer. We reach our apartment, and a security guard opens the gate to let us pass through. Thomas turns the car off. Yamah is saying something to me from around the suitcase. I lean forward and turn to her. I reach out and grab her hand in mine. A visceral meld of compassion, hope, and closeness so beautiful it pulls you in without asking permission. A newfound intimacy with people. An accommodating, forgiving, adjusting way of life. A peace and a pace aware of an existence that includes work and play and dance. An enthusiasm to learn. This is my post-camp survey. This is Liberia. For it all – the UM SWE team, the L-SWE team, the SUCCESS camp, all of the Liberian people and experiences of the past two weeks – I’m grateful.

The team from SUCCESS Camp 2017



GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Impacting the community – SUCCESS Camp 2017

This is the first guest blog from an undergraduate UM SWE member and former UM SWE president, Becca Cohn!

Today, I was struck by the care and compassion the L-SWE members have and their tangible visions for how they can better their communities. Kirsten, an undergraduate student leader in SWE at the University of Michigan, led a workshop to guide the L-SWE students though the process of planning an event. Groups of 5-6 members came up with a wide variety of professional development events that they defined, created agendas, budgets, etc.

Planning professional and career development events

Creating a STEM Career Fair for high schoolers was the most popular event idea. The purpose of this event was to inspire high school students to continue to focus on STEM and understand what STEM careers look like. The passion and commitment to developing and encouraging the youth to succeed inspired me. Establishing successful K-12 STEM outreach programs is a challenge that SWE Collegiate sections of various sizes and years of operation experience. Last year as I served as UM SWE president, the collegiate sections from across the Midwest worked together to pass on best-practices to improve the effectiveness of our outreach events. Even our own section struggles at times to get the number of volunteers needed to run our outreach events smoothly. But when 2/3 of the L-SWE groups planning events during today’s class come up with ideas to develop STEM interest in Liberian youth, it gives me a large amount of optimism that L-SWE will make STEM outreach a cornerstone in their organization and won’t struggle to get members to volunteer to run these events.

Presenting event ideas to the class

Of all the events that students planned, the event that intruiged me the most was called “Improving Disability to Ability”, a four-day workshop for disabled individuals to help them achieve their goals. This group also created a name for their organization called “Building Better Love in Liberia for Development and Growth.” I was impressed by this group’s idea for an event. I took a class last term that focused on identities and it was common for people to not know that there are more components to identity with than age, race/ethnicity, gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and religion. Many people forget that dis/ability status is also a component to identity as many people identify as able-bodied. As an identity that is often stigmatized, it was refreshing to see L-SWE members openly speaking about disabilities and wanting to create a program to empower individuals with disabilities to reach their goals.


GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Second week of camp: Competitions conclude and organizational development – SUCCESS Camp 2017

The smooth glide of Sunday was still present on Monday morning. I felt it in my arms, my measured step, my eyelids. A warm blanket in the dead of winter you’re not ready to remove. Sunday was a beautiful moment to stop, sit, recharge. I sat for an extra minute, watching campers gathering their copy books from the dining tables and heading to Monday’s morning session. The camp wasn’t stopping for me. The SUCCESS train rolled on.

Aeriel made each group draw a number to decide the order. It was competition time between the Waste Management Solutions teams. The campers dressed well for their presentations – pressed shirts, jewelry, dresses. They were serious, and they were ready. Each group was polished and practiced, passing the baton from member to member and flowing through her predesignated section. In the end, we had to pick a winner. When we made the announcement, there was an uproar. Of course. I asked a camper, Esther, if she was upset she was not a part of the winning team.

“Mad, no. We’re happy for them and sad for us.”

As soon as she said this, the class broke into a round of applause for the winning team stationed now at the front of the room.

The winning Waste Management Solutions team

The campers didn’t have to wait long before another competition came to its conclusion on Tuesday after lunch. The taped, the glued, the colorful – the bottle rockets. Sarah, Range Safety Officer (RSO), prepared the launch pad. Each pair presented their specimen, which was filled with a set amount of water and pressurized to 60 PSI with a bike pump. Aeriel recorded the time from the rocket’s launch to the moment it reached the ground. The first rocket went straight up. It then promptly veered into a tree, its nose cone lodged squarely between two large branches. We hadn’t really accounted for that possibility, and in truth, I don’t know how Aeriel scored that pass. I do know this: the winning rocket’s time was 5.30 seconds from launch to ground.

RSO oversees the bottle rocket competition
The bottle rocket winners – Kristen and Doedelle!
Celebrating the bottle rocket victory


Becca rounded out the L-SWE organizational development workshops on Wednesday with a discussion on leadership transition. Considering the youth of L-SWE as an organization (it was founded in 2013), this topic was particularly pertinent as some founding members and leaders will soon be graduating. There was productive dialog that morning, followed by useful feedback for the L-SWE leaders from the members and vice versa. Growing pains come with any organization’s development. L-SWE has accomplished a great deal already in terms of recruiting passionate women engineers and outreach activities at local schools. As an organization, they will be tested as they continue to expand their programming, their membership, their reach. The thoughtfulness and the enthusiasm regarding L-SWE is there, and this makes me hopeful and excited for what is next for their organization.

Between these final days filled with classroom time, the L-SWE ladies ensured there were pauses, time set aside for entertainment. The first of the second week was a talent show on Monday evening. Modeling, singing, dancing, acting. Kirsten brought out her ukulele to play a birthday song for Maria. The next evening was karaoke. Aeriel, in the spirit of Madonna, brought the house down. To say the campers were delighted would be a wild understatement. I was impressed with her performance and her dedication to the performance. But I couldn’t bear it if you simply took my word for it. Ask Aeriel if you’d like to see the full video – you won’t be disappointed.

Better than Madonna
GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Weekend with L-SWE – SUCCESS Camp 2017

No alarm woke me on Saturday. I rolled over to check the time on my phone and saw two things: it was 10:15 AM and I had silenced my alarm somewhere along the morning. I moved slowly. I felt like I could sleep forever, but I was also trying to stay committed to the appearance of a schedule. The week had been superbly exhausting – teaching, talking, planning, discussing, dancing. My sleep debt had swelled, and this morning the collector had come calling. I mixed instant coffee into room-temperature bottled water and waited for what was next.

I was thankful I was awake for lunch, because it was a feast. Fufu, a mound of pounded cassava, placed on top of a mixture of ground spices. All submerged in a “pepper soup” containing crab, bony fish, crawfish, and vegetables. The clear orange broth hugging it all was spicy and rounded, seasoned and full. The broth alone was enough to make a meal. Anything additional just made me feel spoiled. In truth, the food at UL had been pleasant throughout the week – barbeque chicken legs, breaded fish, tuna pasta salad, spaghetti with vegetables and meatballs, mashed potato greens, cooked cabbage, sliced bread, mayonnaise, and plenty of rice. This meal, though. Especially memorable.

We stayed on campus for the rest of day. There was to be a political rally in downtown Monrovia for the elections, including presidential, coming up in October. Combined with an already busy downtown, we opted to avoid the large crowds. Busses filled to the brim with passengers passed by campus as we walked from lunch.

With no rain in sight, a kickball game got going in the afternoon with Edith and Maria as team captains. It was an intense game – competitive and muddy almost go without saying. Lead changes, home runs, strategic bunting. Bottom of the final inning, behind by one run, a booming kick by Jackie secured the hard-fought win for Maria’s team. Did I mention I was also on the winning team?

Captain Maria takes her best kick
Captain Edith with a wicked pitch
The winning team!

Sunday, for a good portion of Liberians, is dedicated to church. This was true for many of the campers. Two-hour services offered twice in the morning, one beginning at 8 AM and one at 11 AM. Thankfully we went to the one beginning at 11 AM, but because of traffic, road conditions, or any potential events occurring between Fendell and the church, we planned to leave at 9 AM. We got on the road around 9:45 AM, heading to Maria’s place of worship, Philadelphia Church. The sanctuary was in a building basement – plastic chairs on a cement floor, pillars wrapped in blue, red, and white fabric, transparent glass pulpit.

I had been told to expect a rousing church experience, and I was not lied to. The choir processed to the front of the room, matching navy dresses and red shoes for the women. The praise song leader started in with an upbeat tune. There was a moment after five minutes had passed in which I almost sat down because I thought the song was ending. I was wrong. The song was about to pick up steam. Clapping. Vigorous stomping. Dancing. Ten minutes later, ever so slowly, the singing came to an end. I sat down, only to be asked to stand back up to be welcomed by the church-goers. Twenty handshakes followed.

Choir at Philadelphia Church

On the drive back to Fendell, Aeriel and Sarah took their Sunday rest in the backseat next to me. I blinked back sleep, barely seeing passing shops, stalls, and pedestrians. Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” played in a long, continuing loop on the radio, every so often interrupted by the radio DJ’s commentary on the lyrics. The notion of a neat, compact four-minute song or hymn just didn’t seem to exist here. Our vehicle slowed as we came up on a small truck with four men in the back with megaphones. Campaigning. Chanting in unison. A large flier with a photo of the man running for representative taped across the back window. We waited patiently and then made our way past the truck. For several second accelerating away, I could still hear the men through the megaphones, their circling refrain fading with the distance.

GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Engineering demos begin – SUCCESS Camp 2017

Standing at the front of the class, sweat running from my brow to behind my ear, smiling wildly. Looking at nothing and everything at once. The first sentence you speak in front of a crowd is the hardest, the leap into the pool. I wrote the word “MENTORSHIP” on the dry erase board in large block letters. I turned back to the class. They looked at me, attentive, poised. I felt a conflicted mix of panic and delight at their eagerness. A few seconds passed, and I took a deep breath. I jumped in. It was Friday afternoon, and my first time teaching at camp.

There are two paths you can take once you embark on a public speaking journey. Either after a few sentences you can feel a calm settle in or you can lose every thought in your brain and stumble along, unsure if you are even forming complete thoughts along the way. I have experienced both, and while they begin with hints of insecurity, one path is clearly more pleasant than the other. I waded through the shallow end of the pool, waiting for which this would be.

It was a unique thing that happened. I have taught classes in the US, and in those situations, I’ve felt varying emotions – excitement, inspiration, contentment, glee. Of all the groups I’ve taught, though, I’ve not ever felt lifted by a group of students. Raised hands, numerous thoughtful questions, engagement without reservation. I had witnessed this from the sidelines for the past few days at camp, but now I was viewing it from the front of the room. The students were elevating me. My thoughts became clearer as I rose above clouds. My voice became more animated. I passed out worksheets after what was supposed to be my intro discussion and realized that already an hour had passed. I opened a bottle of water and drank the entire thing at once, shaking my head in splendid disbelief.

Proposed bottle rocket designs

The first hands-on engineering activity, bottle rockets, began as I floated away from the podium. Sarah had presented the scientific concepts the day prior, but now it was time to build. In small groups, the campers were given empty 1.5 L bottles, a battery of other supplies, and asked to use their knowledge to construct a rocket that would fly the highest. Nine makeshift workstations popped up around the room.

Maria measuring the nose cone
Bottle rocket building

Nose cones from colored construction paper. Fins from cardstock. Clay for weight. Hot glue guns lying in wait, molten strands falling from their nozzles and hardening into opaque lumps on the flat brown paper bags atop which they sat. When the electricity cut off at 5 PM, proto-rockets were stashed in various corners of the room out of sight of other groups’ prying eyes. Even when there’s no prize, it’s always a competition. The launch was scheduled for “sunny and clear hours” on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday of next week.

Decorating bottle rockets

After dinner that evening, we bid Caroline adieu. She was our first UM team member to head back to the US, back to work, back to some semblance of her other life. It was difficult to see her go, because I had enjoyed getting to know her, but also because it reminded me of my ever-dwindling time I had remaining in Liberia. We were one week in. Camp was halfway over.

UM SWE team at UL Fendell Campus (L-R Jill, Aeriel, Sarah, Kirsten, Val, Caroline, Becca, Melinda)
GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Camp continues: Experiences in the classroom – SUCCESS Camp 2017

I stood under a door overhang just past the clock tower next to two other men, staring out at the rain fall. Not violent, but a consistent pour. Volume of the drops against the sidewalk surging and shrinking until a steady rain was dialed in. My rain jacket had gotten me this far, but the shell now felt saturated. Drips from the hood hit me around the knees and worked their way down my shins to collect in my sandals. It was Wednesday morning, classes for the day had not yet started, and I could already press my big toe gently down and see water bubbling out of my sole.

When I heard the rain intensity weaken, I had a moment to make the decision of waiting or walking. I boldly walked, but immediately recognized my error. The brief lull gave way to full blown cats and dogs, and there were no more door overhangs until I arrived at the Engineering building. I had also decided early on in my foray from breakfast that I would protect my backpack containing my computer before the rest of my body, so my coat was acting as a rain tarp with my hood as an anchor point. The arms of the coat hung at my side. I reached the steps leading into the Engineering building with my computer safe and the front of my shirt a shade darker, soaked to the skin.

Aeriel started the morning by introducing a multi-day group project – developing a case study, including solutions, for the waste management issues in Liberia. The groups were given background materials that contained research on the current state of waste management in Liberia, example case studies and attempted solutions for other countries, and information on landfills and recycling programs. There were suggested questions to guide the groups, with the end goal for each group to give a fifteen-minute presentation on the solutions they developed. It was not an easy task. There were obstacles to consider from many vantages – economic and political constraints, the public awareness battle, feasibility in terms of time and scope, corruption. The groups took a collective breath. Aeriel mentioned that the winning group would receive a fabulous prize. The groups began immediately working. Armed with WiFi, poster paper, colored pencils, rulers, glue, and courage, the race began. The finish line was Monday morning.



After supper, I leaned into the breeze from the railing just off the cafeteria. It was the coolest I’d felt yet. Walking back from the Engineering building that afternoon, I had seen one of the campers, Littie, wearing a winter jacket, green and puffy with a fur-trimmed hood. I still had shorts on, and I felt thankful for them. Watching the rest of the evening light slip from the sky, I heard singing. Softly at first, then building with added voices. Gospel, soulful and sweet, voices climbing, weaving. Beautiful to the point of heartache. It was a group of campers lingering at the dining tables in the cafeteria. Clouds were breaking in the distance.

We woke to sun on Thursday morning. Striking. I blinked a dozen times in surprise and mild pain before I could open my eyes fully. Then I smiled. But with the sun came the heat, previous rainfall boiling out of the ground and rising. I felt a little like steamed broccoli by the time I arrived at the classroom. The heat continued through the day, but nothing like the fires that were started in the late afternoon.

The workshop was named Conflict Resolution. It started with the usual flow with which the campers had become familiar: worksheets were passed out and filled in and discussions proceeded in small or large groups. Aeriel and Caroline then introduced the final activity of the workshop. It involved role playing a conflict that escalates and then resolves. Small groups had total freedom to choose their storylines, characters, and steps taken for conflict resolution. The UM graduate students decided it was their duty to lead by example, so we ran into the hallway to throw together a conflict. We shuffled through some ideas, landing on a bit of a soap opera-esque story. The details are not important, but suffice to say, I was the aggressor and Aeriel was the subject of my wrath. Of course, as the story is supposed to go, we worked through our issue, but not before I frightened even myself with my passionate response to Aeriel’s alleged indiscretion. Perhaps it’s the environment in which I’ve been for the past several days. The openness of emotion is so prevalent, so embedded in every day, every workshop, every interaction. Either that, or I was suffering from sleep deprivation. Whatever the cause, I BELLOWED at Aeriel. I did not know I had it in me. I’ve never used the word “bellow” before, because I have always been waiting for the right moment. This is the right moment, because it is precisely what happened.

I’m not sure what we as graduate students were thinking. Our performance was, of course, well-received by the campers, whooping and hollering in response. In the US, an inspired performance as an example would probably be required to rouse a classroom. This classroom did not need additional inspiration. The graduate students’ skit was three minutes. The first group of campers took eight minutes to set up and resolve their conflict. The next several took ten minutes each. Elaborate, detailed stories of made-up conflicts. Shouting, pretend fighting, total immersion in the acting. The electricity on campus has a mandatory shut-off period from 5-7 PM, which is when we are scheduled to end our day. At 5 PM, we had four groups left to present their skit. Lack of lights and fans were paid no mind. The show went on. And on. We walked out of the Engineering building at 5:45 PM. I smiled realizing this was my first classroom experience in which students happily volunteered to stay past the scheduled end to class. Presumed requirements, like electricity, fell away in the face of joy.



GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Tuesday – SUCCESS Camp 2017

First day of camp complete, full of fits and starts that began with my sleep. I tossed and turned, trying my best to remember how tired I was just hours prior in the waking dream that is international travel. At some point, I had lost the ability to connect the dots between where I was now and where I was three days ago, like slipping from one plane of existence to another. So while my wakefulness could easily be attributed to jet lag, there was little thought in my mind of where I’d come from, only where I was going. I turned my alarm clock off two minutes before it was set to go off and headed for the Nescafe packets.

The cafeteria was full of campers when I arrived for breakfast. Cassava, plantains, hard-boiled eggs, and stew-gravy to pour over top of any and everything that made it on to your plate. The camp was held in a classroom across campus from the cafeteria in the Engineering building. We passed the clock tower on the way, each side of the tower stuck on a different time. Forty wooden chairs with desks attached to an arm, “UL PROPERTY” stamped in white paint on the backs. Overhead fans pushing around the humid mid-morning air, a white board, a podium. We began the first workshop covering leadership styles forty-five minutes behind schedule, which I think is on time. All seemed to be flowing smoothly, until a competition was introduced.

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Caroline and Aeriel lead the class
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Florentee takes a personality quiz

In my experience, the sound of yelling because you’re ecstatic and shouting because you’re hysterically angry is not so different at first blush. The same goes for laughing and sobbing. At the extremes of emotions, subtleties are washed out by amplitude. The competition described by Caroline seemed innocent enough. Slips of paper with numbers from 1-20 were placed randomly within a circle made of string on the carpeted floor. The goal for groups of six was to touch the numbers successively, one number at a time, and only one person’s hand could be in the circle at any given time. A lesson in teamwork and communication, right? It started well. We practiced. We made mistakes. Then we were asked to time ourselves. The groups wrote their times on the board – 12 seconds, 14 seconds, 17 seconds, 14 seconds. I asked my group’s timer how we did. 7 seconds. My brow furrowed in confusion. That didn’t seem correct. I watched in slow motion as the time was written on the white board.

An eruption. Disbelief and confusion by the other groups’ members at our group’s unbelievable time. At least, this is what I assumed was being said, because no discrete words were discernable. It was just one long shout held up like a crowd-surfer by every camper in the room. I turned in one complete circle to take it in before I could form a thought. And it continued. Campers running from one side of the room to the other, pulling banners of words, decorating the room with sound. After five minutes, I became a bit apprehensive. What I presumed to be friendly razzing could be construed as fighting without fists. I turned to Aeriel.

“Is everything okay?”

“Oh yeah, they’re not mad. This is normal.”

I had to smile at that. The screaming, the shouting, things that would normally appear to me as warning signs for a brewing fight in the US – in Liberia, business as usual between friends in a competition. The amount of emotion was not rooted in anger, at least not genuine anger, but pure excitement. Zest for participation, socializing, being a part of the game and the outcome. Not wanting to lose, of course, but also not wanting to trample on others. It was more about challenging one another – feeling the full interaction.

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This full interaction continued after dinner with a L-SWE-planned event they called Cultural Night. Each attendee explained the significance of her outfit as it related to her heritage, her inspirations, her own thoughts and desires. For many Liberians, her explanation included information about her family’s tribe or from which time period the clothing came and when and where it would be worn. There was also dancing. So much dancing. Traditional African dances, free-style dances. Liberian students and US students. Laughing. Clapping. Exchanging. A brilliant end to a spirited day.

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Yamah dancing at Cultural Night
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Kirsten explains the significance of her outfit at Cultural Night