Many students use summer as a break from studying, turning instead to work or internships and, if they’re able, relaxing. One University of Tulsa student who chose a different path this year was music major Olivia Davis. Between her junior and senior year, this adventurous soul packed her suitcase and headed to the University of Ghana, where she enrolled in two intensive courses.
Davis’s time in West Africa was made possible by a Frederick Douglass Summer Scholars Grant, which is awarded to qualified students who applied for but were not chosen for the Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship. Recipients are given funding to support their participation in a CIEE study-abroad program. In Davis’s case, she opted for Summer Ghanaian Studies.
“I chose to study in Ghana because I find that a lot of courses centered on African and African American history are difficult (at least for me) to be fully immersed in the material while studying at a predominantly white institution,” said Davis. “I wanted to be able to go to the source to learn about my history and fully experience the richness of Ghanaian culture.”
History, language and travel
Between arriving on June 13 and departing on July 12, Davis took a course on the Atlantic slave trade and another on Twi, one of the many languages spoken in Ghana. In addition to her studies, Davis volunteered with an organization called Play and Learn (PAL), serving as a mentor and tutor for a group of middle- and high-school students in reading comprehension, dictation and essay writing.
While helping at PAL, Davis was struck by the fact the material the children were reading lacked cultural and ethnographic representation and diversity. This stood out to Davis, in part, due to her work at Fulton Street Books and Coffee, located in Tulsa’s Heights neighborhood, whose mission is to bridge the gap between representation and diversity in literature by highlighting books written by and for people of color. “As a Black woman,” Davis commented, “I know that it makes quite an impact to read, learn and be surrounded by those that look like me.”
For Davis, a major benefit of being physically present in Ghana was the ability to go with other study abroad students to sites related to the material they covered in class. These places included the W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Centre, the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum (Nkrumah was Ghana’s first president) and Black Star (Independence) Square. Davis and her fellow students even had the opportunity to try haggling in Twi with vendors at the Accra art market: “Twi became easier once I used the language outside of the classroom. I loved surprising Ghanaians by speaking Twi in conversations!”
Among all the many fascinating excursions, Davis’s trip to the former slave trade embarkation points of Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle was, she said, “the most moving and unforgettable part of the program. Being able to physically step into spaces that harbor such an unjust, sinister history was a lot more overwhelming than I had expected.” Despite the emotional impact of these blood-soaked sites, “I found that it was necessary to go there to understand the reality of the conditions. By stepping into the dungeons and walking through the castles, I was able to experience the conditions in real time and to relate what I read about in my coursework directly to an experience I was able to see and feel.”
Beyond the new knowledge her courses provided and the physical immediacy of field trips, Davis’s time abroad illuminated for her several intangible benefits: “Ghana is a very peaceful country and there is a sense of community that is simply not found in America. I think of places like the markets we’d go to and the hospitable and friendly nature of everyone, despite me being an outsider.”
Davis was surprised and impressed by how welcoming everyone in Ghana was, “even though each of us came from very different backgrounds and demographics. We were seen as people wanting to learn more about their culture and way of life. I never felt judged and looked at differently for being American.”
Her summer experience in Africa also brought home to Davis “the value of immersive education and the need for community in education and life.” Living and learning in Ghana, she said, “taught me how to be more intentional with my relationships towards others. I deepened my sense of the impact even the simplest of conversations can have on an individual, and my time abroad helped me to solidify the need for more meaningful and intentional practices in my own life despite cultural or language barriers.”
Now back home in Tulsa, this semester Davis is enrolled in a history course entitled “Africans in the Americas from Slavery to Freedom.” She is looking forward to sharing what she learned in the classroom at the University of Ghana and in the field at the sites she visited.
Diversity in musicianship
Davis’s fascination with global languages, cultures and histories plays out, too, when she looks at life after graduation. “I hope to explore ethnomusicology further and be able to research the importance of music in non-Western cultures,” she remarked. “Within the music field, I’ve found there is often an erasure of indigenous music and music composed by people of color. I aspire to research, create and curate music and allow first-story narratives of music into spaces that celebrate and educate listeners about diversity in musicianship.”
Associate Professor of Music in Voice Judith Raiford is one of the many at TU who has no doubt that Davis will achieve her lofty ambitions. “I first met Olivia after her impressive performance of Cinderella in the musical Into the Woods at Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences,” Raiford recounted. “I’ve been privileged to be her voice teacher at TU ever since and have been continually amazed and inspired by her musical growth and intellectual curiosity.
“As Olivia was determined to use her music major to explore her interests in the African American experience, we began to seek out new repertoire together-embracing a journey of discovery that has enriched my own awareness and understanding of the African-American culture and its history. With Olivia’s gentle soul and her unwavering commitment to advocating for underrepresented peoples in underprivileged communities, I look forward to seeing how she impacts the world with her passion and grace.”
If Olivia Davis’s expansion of mind and spirit in Ghana inspires you, be sure to check in with TU’s Center for Global Engagement.