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Ghana study abroad program under investigation

Investigations are still underway regarding the alleged mismanagement of the Jackson School of International Studies summer abroad program in Ghana this past August.

Seventeen students traveled to a rural village in the northern part of the West African country to study sustainable development and modes of empowerment.

As it turned out, conditions weren't what they had expected.

"We were essentially left out there to fend for ourselves," said senior Andrew Rakestraw, a program participant.

Problems arose early on when students realized they were living nearly five miles away from program director Linda Iltis, according to several students who requested to remain anonymous for legal reasons.

Another issue was the availability of food, the quantity and quality of which were sacrificed due to a shrinking budget. The value of the U.S. dollar had dropped since the time the budget was set in March.

"The amount of money they had to offer us wasn't enough to feed us," said one student who asked to remain anonymous. "An average breakfast was small, maybe an 11-inch loaf of sugar bread split between 17 people and a small bit of peanut butter."

Students felt equally discouraged over the lack of academic engagement. Several claimed that Iltis was not involved in the education of the students and rarely supervised any lectures.

"We were extremely frustrated," Rakestraw said. "The lectures were irrelevant to what we were studying and [they were] poorly delivered."

Discontent culminated in the sicknesses several students developed. Of the 17 students, 12 became ill. They claimed their illnesses were improperly handled by the program directors.

"When people were sick, they weren't given proper attention," sophomore Madeleine McKenna said.

Another participant said at least one student became sick every other day.

Because of the severity of their illnesses, some of which included malaria and Dengue fever, eight students were emergency evacuated out of the country, and nine chose to stay and travel on their own accord.

"I realized I needed to get out of there because I wasn't recovering from this sickness, and it was primarily from the lack of food," said another student (who also asked to remain anonymous) who had been sick for nine days. He recovered as soon as he received treatment in the United States.

Upon their return, the students filed a formal complaint to the UW's International Programs and Exchanges (IPE) office to receive their funds back — including tuition, airfare, immunization and visa costs.

A formal investigation conducted by a neutral third party within the College of Arts and Sciences is underway, UW spokesman Norm Arkans said.

"Their goal is to have results by the end of the quarter," he said.

The Jackson School of International Studies said it hopes this situation won't affect future study abroad programs in developing countries.

"We hope we can continue going to all the different parts of the world, including Africa," said Anand Yang, director of the Jackson School. "We're aware that some countries are risky. We also want to make sure that the health and safety of our students are guaranteed."

McKenna said this experience will not deter her from studying abroad in the future, but it will encourage her to do more research on any programs that interest her.

"I was never scared to go there," she said. "It makes me sad that this misled program could limit other opportunities."

Rakestraw was impressed at how his fellow students handled the situation in a "non-emotional" and "diplomatic" way. He said everyone was aware of the conditions inherent in studying in a developing country.

"We knew there was a possibility of getting sick," he said. "We knew there was no electricity and no running water. What we hadn't expected was the mismanagement, the lack of educational opportunities, and the restriction of our food. ... This group of students was the most tenacious group of students I have ever encountered."

[Reach reporter Arla Shepard at news@thedaily.washington.edu.]

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