Lessons in Identity, Culture, and Language in Cameroon

Olivia Lucas (far right) with her host family on International Women's Day

Olivia Lucas (farthest right) and her host family on International Women's Day in Cameroon

Olivia Lucas ’18 will tell you that learning a language in another country is more than gobbling up large amounts of vocabulary and grammar. Living with a host family and studying alongside Cameroonian peers launched her into a new experience of personal and national identity, and a broader understanding of global politics.

Mount Holyoke College’ study abroad program with The Middlebury School in Yaoundé Cameroon afforded Lucas the chance to develop her language skills while attending tough academic classes taught entirely in French and opened the doors to Cameroonian culture and society. Lucas spent five months in what seemed a different universe.

 MHC offers more than 150 study abroad programs in 50 countries, giving students rich opportunities in language immersion, field studies, or a traditional classroom learning.

“Multilingualism was Olivia’s path to exploring the world from multiple perspectives,” said Eva Paus, director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives. “Olivia tackled rigorous courses in comparative politics, electoral sociology, and globalization, but it was mastering French that enabled her to become independent, adaptable, and to analyze the shape of the world.”

Her host family was her gateway into cultural immersion. They treated her as one of their children. Her two host sisters taught her Cameroonian cooking and dance and took her to Fabric Day, an annual national observance of International Women’s Day. They joined the throngs of women marching and dancing in the streets, calling for the empowerment of women and girls. All wore dresses made from the same custom cloth, newly designed each year to celebrate the fabric of social cohesion and unity among Cameroonian women.

Being immersed in Cameroonian culture, aspects of being American stood out to her in surprising ways.

After a full schedule of classes at Université catholique d’Afrique centrale, Lucas instinctively gravitated to her room to curl up and reflect privately on her day, but her host parents weren’t having it: “No, no, no we want to spend time with you and get to know you.” Cameroonians were more companionable than she was used to, dropping by one another’s homes unannounced just to be around other people.

“Here in the U.S. we’re caught up in our technology and race from one thing to the next,” Lucas said, “but there, close social ties are far more important.” She says that the culture made her a better “people person” and now back in the states, she misses the communal bond.

 She also found her Cameroonian peers and classmates unusually self-motivated; they pushed themselves to work hard, to create opportunities for others, and to move their country forward. “They felt personally responsible for creating a better future,” Lucas said, “It made me look anew at my position in life and be thankful for what I have been naturally given.”

 In Cameroon, being black ceased to be the first thing others noticed about her. In a country where the majority were not unlike herself, she wasn’t defined by her color and navigated Yaoundé with a sense of comfort and solidarity. She was seen as a woman and asked about her views as an American. “At home, I am seen as a black woman before anything else,” Lucas said, “Unexpectedly, I had the space to think about these other identities and how they shape me. I could focus more on my identity as a woman.”

 In almost no time at all, Lucas acclimated to her new norms. Huddling nightly with her host family, they watched and dissected the news together. They were constantly involved as a family in political discussions, following elections and challenges to democracy around the world.

 As Lucas steers towards graduation from MHC, she hopes to pursue a career that promotes equity and social justice through public policy, most likely in the international arena.  Studying abroad in Cameroon has made her a better French-speaker and a more engaged and confident global citizen.