Sierra Arnold, Research Assistant at ENDA Tiers Monde

Sitting cross-legged on her couch with a fresh face of makeup that I had just done for her Delta Phi Epsilon date party, Sierra Arnold giggled at the idea that I was going to record our conversation. In a room filled with photos, posters and artifacts centered on travelling, this senior anthropology major was about to tell me about her trip to Dakar, Senegal.

Sierra’s big blue eyes grew wider as she excitedly told me about her time in western Africa. She found her co-op independently of Drexel, thanks to one of her professors telling her about a study abroad program at The Dakar Institute in collaboration with Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) and the West African Research Center (WARC), which is funded by Boston University. “The main goal of the program is to bring American students to Senegal and participate in a cross-cultural exchange with Senegalese students who are in the same classes,” she said.

The institute was able to adapt its study abroad program to include an unpaid internship as a research assistant in addition to classes in French and Wolof, which is the language of Senegal, for Sierra’s co-op purposes. “My internship was with an environmental nonprofit founded in Senegal called ENDA Tiers Monde (or “ENDA Third World”). The company researches women, health, youth organization, political advocacy and sustainability,” the 22-year-old said.

ENDA Tiers Monde goes to villages to assesses what more can be done to enhance the lives of the community members in terms of environment and development. Sierra gave an example where volunteers from a village helped build bridges and canals in order to prevent flooding and to lay piping for portable drinking water. Sierra, who is fluent in French, had the role of translating documents from French to English in order to broaden the reach of the company’s work.

Although Sierra was in Senegal to study abroad and participate in an internship, there was a lot of unofficial learning about the hierarchies of non-governmental organizations and their interactions within communities. “The job was secondary. As an anthropologist, the culture and research was more important for me,” she said.

While abroad, Sierra also worked on an independent study with the professor who connected her to The Dakar Institute. Sierra completed a research paper about the language community formed by taxi drivers in Senegal. Using a type of ethnographic research called participant observation, Sierra spent a lot of time riding around in taxis learning how drivers utilized language, honking and hand signals to make up for a lack of signage and traffic lights in the developing country.

The thing Sierra said she misses most about Senegal is her host family. She lived with 17 other people, who took her in and taught her about the culture. They even trusted her with the task of making attaya, a Senegalese tea enjoyed after lunch. Once she successfully made attaya, making the drink became her daily task. Something so minute made Sierra feel like a part of the family because they had given her a chore. “I was so happy to give back to them even just a little bit since they had given me so much,” she said.

Sierra said her biggest challenge was that she often found herself frustrated with the leisure element of Senegalese life. However, it is now one of her favorite parts of the culture. “With any new culture, it shines a harsh spotlight on things about your own culture that you don’t like,” she said in reference to the fast-paced American culture she has always known.

Inspired by the Senegalese people, Sierra is taking her time figuring out her next steps after graduation. “22 years of schooling is a lot,” she said, “At this point I feel comfortable turning opportunities down to figure out exactly what it is I want to do.” Originally from Jacksonville, FL, Sierra is moving back home in June.

Though she’s in no rush, Sierra is applying to Master’s programs in the UK and elsewhere in Europe with the goal of conducting more ethnographic research or studying international development to better understand the processes of developing nations. Ideally she would attend the University of Manchester for its Global Development Institute.

When she’s not travelling or filling out applications for grad school, Sierra loves hanging out with the friends she’s made through various organizations. She is the head RA in Race Hall, a member of DPhiE sorority and Weekend Warriors, which is an outdoors club where she acts as a trip leader on hiking outings, skiing trips and more.


All images courtesy of Sierra Arnold