Grad using degree in real-world way

“I can’t believe I just did that,” I mumbled to myself.

I had just been yelled at by an irate Ghanaian security guard, after I handed something to him using my left hand. It was a cultural no-no, and something I had read about so many times before.

Rewind six years.

It was my first year as a journalism student at Carleton, and as a 17-year-old with little direction in life besides the pursuit of some sort of career that involved writing, I had no idea what electives to choose.

I suddenly had a group of friends from my journalism classes, and it just so happened that they all had chosen a Monday morning anthropology class. Ignoring the fact that I had no idea what anthropology was, I signed up.

The following Monday at 8 a.m., my friends and I sat in a huge auditorium full of highly caffeinated students. I listened intently, and by the end of that class I knew I would be pursuing a double major in both journalism and anthropology.

It was stories of places I could only dream of, evidence of cultural practices so foreign they seemed like fiction. It was quotes from the people I wanted to be interviewing, and anachronistic theories I wanted to explore and disprove.

Four years later, I had a combined honours degree in my hand, and I was desperate to use my skills in some way. I wanted a chance to continue to delve into the ways of the world I didn’t know just yet, to explore and learn from the people who grew up beyond the confines of the suburban streets I knew as home.

In mid-2012, I found a way to do just that. Mindlessly surfing the Internet, I had stumbled upon the website of a Canadian international development organization called Crossroads International. Intrigued, I ended up on a page where a Communications Officer position was posted. The position was in Ghana, and it was exactly the type of opportunity I had been pining for. I knew absolutely nothing about Ghana. My degree had made me brave, though, with countless interviews transforming me from a timid teen into an assertive adult, unafraid to follow my heart and pursue my dreams.

I applied, and two weeks later I had committed to the position.

I’m now living and working in Ghana, as a communication officer for a women’s-rights organization called Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF). Every day, my degree in journalism and anthropology comes to life, in more ways than one.

There have been the stumbling blocks that have resulted in more learning opportunities, reminding me of the complaints in fieldwork we read back in third-year anthropology class. There were my failed attempts at the journalistic dramatic pause in interviews, usually filled by the interviewee but thwarted by details lost in translation. Sure, I had read about the importance of using your “clean” right hand countless times before, but it turns out being yelled at does a much better job of searing something into your memory than a dusty old book.

On the other hand, my degree has helped make my experience in Ghana both rewarding and enjoyable. I’ve had the opportunity to apply my education to real life, using the technological skills I learned in journalism class to create a web presence for my organization, and the cross-cultural skills I learned from anthropology to navigate the intricacies of this other culture in interviews and stories.

There was the woman who told me of how training sessions by WiLDAF had helped her acquire land that was rightfully hers. My journalism training told me to push and continue to ask questions, to ask questions to clarify, again and again. My anthropology training told me to pay attention to what I knew about Ghanaian culture, and to form my questions using this knowledge. My education reminded me to be as objective as possible, to be an inquiring observer without preconceived notions.

After realizing my interest in her story, the woman led me through her land by the hand, discussing polygamous marriage and the gender discrimination that had held her back from the fruitful land she now uses for survival. Suddenly, an elderly man emerged from behind a cocoa tree, holding a rusted machete and flashing a yellowed smile. It was the woman’s father, the man who she used her training to educate about property rights, subsequently leading him to grant her the land that was rightfully hers.

As the two hugged on the same lush land that had previously divided them, I was suddenly reminded of just how much some time and talk can lead to discoveries. This highlighted the problems with “armchair anthropology” I had been tested on in my anthropology class, it was the “colour” my journalism professors had insisted on.

Standing in the middle of a farm in rural Ghana, I finally appreciated those excruciating Monday mornings and countless hours spent transcribing interviews. I realized that walk across the graduation stage didn’t mean the end of my learning. Rather, it was proof of my readiness to take the next step, to continue learning with a pen in my hand and questions on my tongue. It was the start of a life spent stumbling into the unknown, with my head high and mind open.

Kelsey Parsons graduated from Carleton in 2011 with a degree in journalism and anthropology.

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