Making a difference as a social work grad in Africa
Story by Tricia Howley; photos courtesy of Ayana Session
September 12, 2019–As a social worker, Ayana Session (B.S.W., ’17) believes it is important to gain experience in developmental, organizational, and international social work. So shortly after graduating from Colorado State University, she left the U.S. for the first time in her life, and signed on for a two-year posting in Cameroon with the Peace Corps.
“I joined the Peace Corps to continue the cultural and advocacy group work I was involved in on campus, as well as to gain international and mezzo-level social service experience,” said Session, who was active with many groups at CSU.
“I was vice president of Social Work in Action, a member of the Black Student Alliance, and worked as an inclusive community assistant with Housing and Dining Services,” said Session. “I completed my social work practicum with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and interned at the Fort Collins Public Defenders Office.”
One volunteer in a town of 13,000
After graduation, Session received her Peace Corps assignment. She became a health extension volunteer in Cameroon, a central African country on the Gulf of Guinea. “It is affectionately referred to as ‘Africa in miniature,’ due to its wide diversity,” Session said. “Every climate and landscape found in Africa can also be found in Cameroon. It is also diverse in terms of people. There are 240 distinct ethnic tribes throughout the country.”
“I live in a small town with a population of around 13,000,” said Session, who is from Denver. “As Peace Corps service entails mostly self-driven work, I am the only volunteer and only foreigner out of those 13,000 people.”
“In my opinion, our town is one of the best places to live. It is nestled in the hills and surrounded by beautiful landscapes. We experience year-round temperate tropical weather. Due to development in the region, my town has many amenities not experienced by volunteers in other posts,” Session explained.
Session has been volunteering in this location for nearly two years since graduating from the School of Social Work. “There is a paved road and consistent electricity. Most people either have a well, running water, or a nearby source of water,” Session said.
The local residents Session works with in her host town in Cameroon mostly identify as Bamileke. “The Bamileke tribe is known for its venerable language, industrious principles, brotherhood, and strong personalities,” said Session.
“Because of the culture of hard work, most people have at least two jobs: usually a combination of farming paired with a secondary profession,” Session said. “With all the fresh food and lively people, our town is well-known for its market and its dancing.”
Practicing client-driven intervention for public health
As a health extension volunteer, Session works towards the goal of improving the health of people in her host community. “My community and I have worked to increase overall health knowledge in our town, create opportunities for income generation, increase food diversity, reduce the stigma of HIV and AIDS, and provide support for some of the most marginalized people in our community,” said Session.
Session employs lessons learned at CSU in multiple ways. “Much of my work has been informed by my social work education,” Session said. “I have accomplished this by connecting with the local hospital, key community organizations, and people in the community at large.”
“One of the most important lessons I learned while studying at CSU is the importance of client-driven intervention,” she said. “With this in mind, I brought possibilities and expertise to the areas for growth identified by my host community, and worked with them to find strategies that best fit their ideal outcomes.”
Based on the strategies she initially established with members of the community, Session serves in three main social work roles. “To meet our shared goals, I have worked as either a broker, educator, or facilitator for many of the initiatives I have implemented over the past two years as a volunteer.”
“In the project I am currently implementing, I am linking a non-governmental organization (NGO) with health professionals in my town to provide patients with necessary medical tools. Interventions directly connecting people to tools and services, such as this, are necessary,” said Session.
“However, I prefer to serve as a broker to ensure that people in the community hold the tools to provide necessary services themselves, such as with my grass root and training projects,” Session added. “This increases the overall capacity of the town and ensures the sustainability of our interventions.”
In the role of educator, Session again focuses on sustainability. “One of my most exciting education projects was working with a pre-existing regional community health volunteer group to disseminate HIV information to my village plus eight others in my district,” said Session.
“I developed the lesson plan so necessary information could be understood by people regardless of education level, and was in line with cultural values,” Session said.
“I modeled it for the volunteers and we worked on strategies to deliver it to their specific villages. In this way we disseminated vital health information to an entire health district of more than 30,000 people,” said Session
Of all her work with Peace Corps, Session values her role as a community facilitator most highly. “I created and currently facilitate many self-advocacy and community development groups. Among these are the health club at the high school, our mushroom growing co-operative, and our district-wide, multi-village HIV support group.”
Professional and personal growth with Peace Corps
During her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, Session has bravely tackled social work practice on her own in Cameroon. “Working on these projects, I’ve learned first-hand what community-wide programming, empowerment, and self-motivated service looks like,” she said.
“And, I have been able to witness the changes resulting from my interventions. I see neighbors making healthier, more nutrient dense meals; I see my students using safer practices when working on the farm; and I see people sporting materials from my various campaigns.”
In addition to professional experience, Session has also found personal fulfillment. “It has been important for me to see the positive sustainable changes in my community, but I have also seen these changes in myself,” she said.
Session left her country of birth to live in completely unfamiliar surroundings. “It was not easy moving to a new continent during my first ever trip out of the U.S.,” she said. “I had a number of cultural and language misunderstandings.”
“After living in a French-speaking country, I now speak French conversationally and am working towards fluency. I also worked to understand for myself what it means to be an African-American living in Africa, with very little connection to the country or even the continent. These are just a few of the experiences I had to grow through,” said Session.
“I have accomplished my goal in joining Peace Corps, which was to gain experience in developmental, organizational, and international work,” Session said. “I also look forward to continuing to serve in mezzo and organizational social work in the future.”
Session will apply to graduate school next year to receive her Master’s in Social Work. “Now I am more flexible and less rattled by hardships and unexpected obstacles,” she stated. “I hope to take all the lessons I have learned and move forward. After earning my degree I plan to work towards becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.”
Read more news about CSU’s School of Social Work.