When Miles Spann, a senior political science major, first found out he would be a participant in the Alternative Summer Break (ASuB) trip to Ghana in May, he began preparing himself for the journey.
In addition to the ASuB group discussions with fellow participants on topics such as culture shock and AIDS, Spann also took two courses on African politics, just so that he would have some additional knowledge before the trip. Even by taking these steps nothing could truly prepare him for the impact the experience would have on his life.
After 16 hours of flying with a layover in England, and another hour on the road to arrive at the home of the host family, Spann and the other ASuB students had finally reached their destination and quickly experienced some culture shock.
They didn’t expect to witness such a mix of traditional African culture with strong European influence. The streets were unpaved but lined with billboard advertisements for cars or beverages; residents would dance and sing in their traditional African garb but would also be seen driving luxury cars. Spann said he never felt unsafe and that there was no animosity towards Americans.
Spann recalled going “off the grid” with technology and instead becoming accustomed to having deeper conversations with the host family and others. Spann admitted that one of the biggest culture shocks was actually coming back to the states where others expected him to update his social media accounts immediately.
The ASuB students spent two weeks working in four different orphanages, one of which was only for children affected by AIDS, either having it themselves or having lost a parent to the disease. The orphanages were very poor yet the caretakers and even the children would share whatever they had with others.
Spann shared a story about a little girl with a small package of cookies that she shared with the other children and even with him. He tried to refuse and told her to keep it for herself to which she simply replied, “We share.” Working with these children was an emotional experience for him and the other students, and Spann says it was a reminder that “it’s not hard to really be a friend to all.”
When they weren’t working in the orphanages, the ASuB students made time for sightseeing, visiting the beach, some villages, a couple of museums, and Cape Coast Castle, the most impactful place for Spann.
Cape Coast Castle served as the holding place for slaves before they were sold and passed through the Door of No Return to be shipped overseas. The slaves were kept at Cape Coast Castle for three months with minimal food and water; the conditions on the ship for their six-month journey were even worse. While he doesn’t know his direct lineage, being at the location where these injustices occurred caused Spann to have much more respect and appreciation for what his African ancestors suffered through.
“From an African-American male perspective the experience allowed me to cherish my daily life and be thankful for where I am,” he said. “It made me realize that I should live up to my potential so that their sacrifices weren’t in vain. I want to embrace my heritage and look forward to my future.”
The experience that Spann had with Alternative Summer Break demonstrates the mission of Alternative Breaks—to challenge Illinois State students to become involved leaders in cultural and social awareness through education, strong direct service, and reflection.