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Ghana: 'An Experience of a Lifetime'

Students in Ghana

UB students take a breather with Prof. Scornavacca (left) in between interactions with various businesses in the African nation of Ghana. Photo by Erin Bellamy.

If there’s one truth about students at the University of Baltimore, it’s this: They are on the go. No matter where they're from or what they want to do in life, UB students keep moving, keep contributing their passions, their creativity, their ideas and their intelligence to the world.

And that's "world" in the literal sense: Every semester, students from UB travel to countries everywhere, where they do―everything. In Northern Ireland, they write plays. In Brazil, they study an up-and-down economy. In Belize, they explore a unique natural environment. In the Philippines, they support women who are starting small businesses. From the breathtaking cities of the Middle East, to the South Pole, to the most obscure archipelago in a land that could not be further from home, you'll find UB people―learning, thinking, doing, experiencing.

Sound exhausting? It can be. But these peripatetic students, and the professors who accompany them on their journeys, are seemingly hungry for the things that change their views of life. Instead of returning to campus with a vaguely disappointing Wizard of Oz message―"There’s no place like home!"―they are inspired by what they've seen in their travels. They want to be part of making life better for all.

Take the recent Global Field Study to Ghana in West Africa, which took place in early 2017. Organized and designed by Prof. Eusebio Scornavacca from UB's Merrick School of Business, in collaboration with the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA), the trip took 13 University of Baltimore students out of their quotidian comfort zone to work with entrepreneurs at four digital start-ups in Accra, the capital city of Ghana.

Hit the Ground Running—and Don't Stop!

Scornavacca, who teaches Management Information Systems, says, "Students had to hit the ground running and work with their GIMPA counterparts to address real business challenges presented by the partner companies. They were able to immerse in a new culture and business environment as well as experience firsthand how local IT entrepreneurs are creating a positive impact in their communities and building businesses, despite the harsh economic and social challenges they face."

Real-life cases, Scornavacca says, are an effective way to learn how to work in groups and to attack problems from a variety of perspectives.

"We excel at case studies in the Merrick School," says Scornavacca, the University's Parsons Professor for Digital Communication, Commerce and Culture and director of its Center for Digital Communication, Commerce and Culture. "The difference this time is we were all new to this country on the other side of the world, and we didn't have a lot of background on the companies―literally everything was new."

  • Ghana boats
    Boats on the coast of ghana

    A colorful collection of fishing boats crowds the coast of Ghana, where UB students traveled for a field trip as part of their business case study work. Photo by Eusebio Scornavacca.

  • Ghana meds anti-counterfeit
    Digital makes a difference

    Among the case studies worked on by UB students was a technological application of text and code that ensures a product's authenticity. Photo by Lawrence Kovacs III.

  • ghana bus
    bus ride through rural ghana

    The group of 13 students and Prof. Scornavacca toured the countryside of Ghana, passing through many villages and coastal locales. Photo by Eusebio Scornavacca

  • ghana tour
    A trip into history

    Students toured sites in Ghana where the slave trade once flourished. Photo by Erin Bellamy.

  • ghana green forest
    A contrast with city life

    UB students didn't spend all of their time in the busy, heavily populated capital city of Accra. Here they tour a forest canopy area accessible via a rope bridge. Photo by Erin Bellamy

Did the students fall to pieces? Did they search out things to complain about, like the food or the accommodations?

"Nothing like that," Scornavacca says. "I think it changed our lives. I’ve never seen anything like it."

This is not a statement to be taken lightly, coming from a professor who speaks seven languages, travels across the globe, has taught on five continents and who is internationally renowned for his research in digital disruption as it affects individuals, business and society.

What Scornavacca means is this: The Ghana trip brought out something, call it an energy or a resilience, in these UB students that he has only rarely witnessed in his career. The combination of their location in Accra, a sprawling city that is home to about 2.8 million; the sightseeing trips they took to the coast, through villages and towns where the remnants of colonialism and slavery are easy to see; the warm and friendly people they met―it was a confluence of factors that inspired the group to be extremely productive, simply determined to make a positive contribution.

"It was truly an experience of a lifetime that I will never forget," Beraka Bland, an undergraduate majoring in information systems and technology management, wrote in his post-trip journal. "Being a black man in America … my first impressions were feelings of acceptance and a powerful sense of purpose that I have maintained with my return to the states. Not only was I educated culturally, but I learned things professionally."

'Dynamic Flexible Arrangements'

Scornavacca says the group relied on an acronym he invented that serves as a reminder of the importance of "going with the flow." When you’re immersed in a new culture, it is important to keep an open mind.

"Dynamic Flexible Arrangements―D.F.A.―that's how we would refer to anything that was different from our expectations and required quick adjustment," he says. "Sometimes we would keep up our good humor and find ourselves saying 'D.F.A., D.F.A.' It helped not only to manage expectations but also to keep us humble."

Shelby Blondell, B.S. '15 and a current M.B.A. candidate, wrote in her journal: "I am still pinching myself trying to figure out if this trip is real life. To get to travel to Accra, experience business life in Ghana, meet locals, and explore a new place is an experience that has forever changed me."

For his part, Scornavacca says it isn't often that a week spent in a foreign country can have such long-lasting effects. But the mix of the businesses, the students and their passions, plus the obvious cultural contrasts resonated in ways that could last for years.       

"We had the opportunity to take the students out of their comfort zone, and I think that was sort of the 'X factor' that got them revved up and really working hard," he says. "Nothing―not the electricity going out during a presentation, not the unfamiliar landscape or the infrastructure or the weather―nothing was going to slow them down. In fact, I think it was these minor inconveniences and distractions that worked in their favor."

So while young people today get tagged as easily distracted by screens, beeps and the modern scourge of the "notification," they've also learned how to turn everything off―everything but the task before them.

UB's Diversity a Big Plus 

Scornavacca also credits the diversity of the group―the University of Baltimore's everyday blend of ethnic, gender and age groups―as a real strength for those who went on the trip.

"These are the people of the 21st century," he says. "They have so much to offer, so much talent and drive. The trip to Ghana was the most rewarding experience in my teaching career. I’m damned proud of them."

He adds that while students' overseas experiences are always valuable, there is no better place for their knowledge to be applied than Africa.

"Africa is where it's at," Scornavacca says. "Digital entrepreneurs are thriving there like nowhere else in the world. Countries like Ghana and Kenya are places where you can see simple digital technologies making a huge socio-economic impact. We're definitely going back to Africa."

Step back a bit, and that sounds like something that anybody at UB would say: There's a big world out there, and we're part of it.

'I learned to be open'

In a series of journal reflections about their field trip to Ghana, several of the 13 University of Baltimore students emphasized the meaning of their journey. Yes, they picked up some valuable (and marketable!) skills about digital platforms, high-technology applications and future products, but they also, together and individually, embraced something even more important: Accepting new things, in each and every new day, is what makes life amazing. Here are some samples from their journals:

"This trip surpassed my expectations in so many ways. ... I was expecting there to be field visits to a local company and group work similar to other college classes. What actually took place, however, was much more in depth and rewarding than I could have imagined."  -Jane Porter

"We could not learn more about the value of human life and equality in any other place."     -Liliana Stefaniuk

"This trip showed me that I can work with amazing people from various backgrounds, under less than ideal circumstances, and produce a quality product." -William Pierre

"Pairing with local students to problem solve gets us a little deeper into the city and into local culture. This was a win for all parties involved." -Erin Bellamy

"Every day I learned things that I didn't know I did not know. Not only was I educated culturally, but I learned things professionally I don't think any company or in-class study in America could have ever taught me." -Beraka Bland

"The biggest learning experience from this trip was to be open. Be open to new people, things, places, challenges, cultures, religions, everything. -Lawrence Kovacs III