English Among the Elephants

Deep in the ecosystem of the Serengeti, among the wildebeests and giraffe, are villages full of children whose education depends on learning English.

For the past three years, Concordia students and alumni have taught English to village children through an initiative of the Grumeti Fund, which is based in this area of Tanzania. The partnership with Concordia College and Concordia Language Villages began with 90 elementary-age students at one site in 2017 and has expanded to four sites and 480 students for summer 2020. Concordia alumni with backgrounds in teaching can apply to be a part of the team that will teach in Tanzania for four weeks.

Concordia graduate Helene Danielson ’96 teaches middle school in Brainerd, Minn., and participated in the program last summer.

“I had really high expectations for what this experience would be for me. Honestly, the trip exceeded those expectations,” Danielson says. “I could never have predicted the depth of the connections made and the way that the experience continues to shape my thinking each day.”

Danielson says having experience as a middle school teacher was helpful, but it’s also helpful that regardless of where they are, children are children in their inner beauty and unpredictability. She says the teams working with the children meshed well and were able to enjoy the nature of the region.

“It was amazing to witness the animals in nature and to learn about the conservation work being done. My travel group were strangers who became like family,” Danielson says. “Each individual in our team brought their talents, their positivity, and their sense of adventure. We lived together, planned together, explored the market together. We enjoyed each other and grew from each other’s strengths.”

In her fourth year serving as dean of the program, Dr. Patty Gulsvig in Concordia’s department of education loves to see the learning process with the students and knows the importance of their work. While primary school is taught in Swahili with 40 minutes of English each day, secondary school is taught in English making the transition difficult for students.

“The commitment from the Grumeti Fund has been wonderful,” Gulsvig says, noting the teaching opportunity wouldn’t be possible without funding and coordination from the conservation group. “Concordia Language Villages has also offered professional development workshops for Tanzanian teachers in January for the last two years, with a third scheduled this year. These teacher participants then get to see in action what we are doing with the kids during the summer program.”

Sarah Bjelde ’83 also worked in the program as the associate director last summer. A former dean of the French Language Village and a Concordia alumna, she questioned if the adventure would be too much for her. Bjelde quickly adapted and came to love the experience, including working with the Concordia students on the trip.

“Cobber students whose ideas and energy filled our ‘classroom’ spaces with music and laughter was gratifying,” Bjelde says. “The care they took in preparing fun and interesting lessons filled me with a newfound pride in being a Concordia graduate. It was captivating to observe a new generation at work.”

Both Bjelde and Danielson recommend the program to other Cobber alumni and know it will enrich the life of anyone who takes the leap to teach in the program.

The 2020 program is May 27 through June 29.

Find out more about the program