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Gretchen Baldwin ('12)

Portage, MI
Major: International Studies
Minors: French and Studio Art

Upon getting off my plane in January, I met my program manager, let him help me with my bags, and promptly walked right past our car, having misunderstood his directions.

Rough start.

My journey to Cameroon is my fourth to the African continent, and it has been by far the hardest. While the duration of the trip is daunting, it was not what exhausted me. A semester abroad for anyone is some combination of wild, inconvenient, exciting, and tiring at any given time. To be immersed in French is never to really leave class. When I buy beans and beignets from the street vendor down the road, our interaction is homework. Unlike Hope, going home is not necessarily relaxing here. Host families mean making small mistakes, regular requests for repetition, and improvisation.

But with the exhaustion comes a paradoxical exhilaration. One of the most miserable moments one can have here is to hear the English words, "You don't speak French, do you?" from the person in line behind you in the grocery store. But no number of those moments matter when a university professor tells you that his first impression of your speech is fluency, or when your host family points out a particular improvement. It is absolutely impossible to immerse yourself in a culture and language not your own and not experience failures. But the victories outweigh the discouragement of the failures tenfold. I have never been more proud of myself academically than when I was there, because my every moment is unconventionally academic.

Being in Cameroon has been a mélange of the unexpected, the inspired, the random, and the totally unknown. In this country of over 250 ethnic groups (each with a dialect to match) I have picked up not only French, but have added a bit of Pidgin English, Fulfulde, Meta and Yemba to my repertoire. I have been blessed to live with not one, but three host families. Each could not be more different than the one before it, and each has given me a fresh perspective on the country and its great diversity.

And the diversity here extends beyond the language and the people. I have seen everything from the outer Sahel to palm trees on the Atlantic coast to dunes of volcanic ash on top of Mount Cameroon. The language nuances and cultural norms that I pick up in one place may be a help or a hindrance in the next, but I never knew that until I was in the thick of the newness. It is astounding how lost and broken one can feel in one moment and how independent and capable in the next.

Four months is not enough time to explore Cameroon. It probably isn't enough time to explore much of anywhere, and it certainly isn't enough time to master a language. But the opportunity to get a four months' head start on a place, to have a taste of long-term life overseas, is something I would not have gotten without studying abroad. This promised to be difficult from the moment I stepped off the plane and I would not change a thing.