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Africa Trip Offers Transformative Experience for Social Welfare Students

October 27, 2009

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Worshippers outside St. Mary's Church, Mount Entoto, Ethiopia.

Worshippers outside the Church of Saint Mary on Mount Entoto, near Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.(earthphotos.com)

On a trip to Ethiopia this summer, a group of UAlbany School of Social Welfare students stopped at the Church of St. Mary on Mount Entoto, known all over the country for its healing waters. It is here where thousands of people infected with HIV/AIDS go in hope of being cured by the holy water provided through the church on the mountain’s summit.

An estimated 22 million people are living with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa -- around two-thirds of the global total. In 2007 alone around 1.5 million people in the region died from AIDS and another 1.9 million people became infected with HIV.  Yet while anti-viral medication and other forms of assistance have been made available, the aid does not always reach those in need.

Carla Billey and her fellow UAlbany students decided to donate money for food and clean water directly to those gathering near the church. "As we passed the gates and walked onto the field, we saw over a hundred people waiting," said Billey, a second-year M.S.W. student from Brooklyn, N.Y. "It took my breath away."  The number of people waiting for three birr -- the equivalent of less than a dollar -- astonished her.

Billey was on a six-credit study tour of Ethiopia and South Africa with Associate Professor Robert L. Miller, Jr. from Aug. 8-22. The annual trip was organized by the U.S. - African Partnership for Stronger Communities Project, which was founded by Distinguished Professor Shirley Jones 10 years ago. Jones continues to serve on a fundraising committee in Rhinebeck, N.Y. that has provided scholarship assistance to students participating in the summer study tour. The committee raises an estimated $12,000 a year in scholarship funds.

Miller and the UAlbany students traveled to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (the site of Mount Entoto), as well as Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria in South Africa. Leaders discussed HIV/AIDS, gender rights and child welfare.

Katherine Tuttle of Warwick, N.Y., another M.S.W. student, said throughout the trip the group met people dedicated to improving social conditions in Africa. "The tour gave me insight into numerous ways that I could be a part of that change,” said Tuttle. “I can't imagine a better opportunity for students to broaden their understanding of social justice in the global context.”

School of Social Welfare Associate Professor Robert L. Miller Jr. and students in Africa.

Social Welfare Associate Professor Robert L. Miller, Jr. with UAlbany students in Africa in August. (Photo courtesy Robert L. Miller Jr.)    

The tour is an extraordinary opportunity for students to experience local culture and history while having a deeply meaningful time and fun, said Miller, who was study tour leader. "The learning moments continue to be transformative. With every trip I am more grateful to be a co-learner with the students."

Jerry Gioeni, a UAlbany alumnus from Schenectady, N.Y., and a College of Saint Rose graduate student, said going to a rural mountain community in Ethiopia was "definitely the complete opposite of what our daily lives hold." His most compelling experience was visiting an orphanage run by a woman who has been taking in children for 40 years without any help from the government.

"We brought them homemade quilts and rag dolls made by volunteer quilters in Albany, Rhinebeck, and Atlanta," said Gioeni, who worked in human services before starting his degree. He learned to say "Amesege'nallo'," which means "Thank you," in Amharic.

The tour is open to students, faculty, and anyone interested in social justice, community, and economic development in Africa.

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