Ghana Study Abroad Program Invites Students to Explore Race, Identity and Spirituality

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Standing in the center of Independence Square in Ghana’s capital, Accra, Angelica Robinson takes a minute to think of the history that surrounds her — the nation’s struggle for freedom, its connection to the slave trade and its impact on American culture. 

Robinson is experiencing the country for the first time as part of Cal State Fullerton’s four-week study abroad program. 

“​​The opportunity to participate in this program is a dream come true. This learning experience is fostering in me an even greater appreciation for the rich Ghanaian culture and history, and a deeper understanding of myself as an African American,” said Robinson, a graduate student in higher education.

A collaboration between CSUF’s religious studies and African American studies departments, the program places students in the heart of Ghana to learn about racial identity, African American spirituality and religious practices, and cultural elements that remained following the transatlantic slave trade. 

Nine students participated in the 2024 trip and enrolled in the course African American Religions and Spirituality, which focuses on such topics as Ghanaian identity, the history of slavery, and storytelling through music and dance. In addition to experiencing Ghana’s religious and spiritual customs firsthand, students learn how those customs inform and reinforce Black identity in the United States. 

CSUF students and faculty met with staff and faculty at a school of education in Tamale, Ghana (Courtesy of Angelica Robinson)

Throughout their trip, students visited such historic locations as the Kwame Nkrumah National Park and Mausoleum, the Salaga Slave Market and the “Door of No Return,” through which millions of Africans were forced onto slave ships bound for the United States.

Ibrahim Zakyi, chair and professor of religious studies, designed and led the trip in collaboration with Dawn Person, professor of educational leadership, and Vita Jones, professor of special education. The program was further supported by Jessica Stern, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Amir Dabirian, provost and vice president for academic affairs. Zakyi said this is the first time that the two departments have led a study abroad program to Ghana. 

“Ghana also has a history of being a magnet for African American and Black icons such as W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou and President Barack Obama, who either frequented there or chose to live there permanently. There are several academic and cultural centers dedicated to Black studies, including the W.E.B. DuBois Center for Pan-African Culture,” said Zakyi. “By partaking in this trip, CSUF students are empowered to learn from these great icons, and that experience will inform their actions for the rest of their lives.” 

To understand how different religions are practiced in Ghana, Robinson said they also attended several services and interacted with local community members and leaders. Visiting a church in Tamale, Robinson said she found herself captivated by the upbeat melodies, the rhythmic songs and dances, and the joy behind the worship. She traced the practices through history, understanding their impact on modern religious customs across the world.

“It is without question that this style of worship is the origin and main influence of similar styles of worship practiced in many African American churches in the United States,” said Robinson. “It is through these interactions that I gathered some of the greatest insights into the culture beyond what we have learned in the classroom.”   

Inspired by her experience, Robinson plans to pursue her doctorate in higher education and conduct research focused on increasing study abroad opportunities for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

“Recognizing the benefits of global engagement experiences, I plan to conduct research in my doctoral program around increasing the representation of BIPOC students in study abroad programs,” she said. “Participating in this program is excellent preparation for the research I hope to do, as I can now say that I have studied abroad and can speak to the benefits of doing so.”

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