From left, Greta Wilkening '21, Dominica Chang, Bronwyn Earthman '21, Miriam Thew Forrester '20, and Tamima Tabishat '20 pose for a selfie in Chang's office.
Senegal selfie: Dominica Chang, second from left, is teaching an independent study course on Wolof this term with, from left, Greta Wilkening ’21, Bronwyn Earthman ’21, Miriam Thew Forrester ’20, and Tamima Tabishat ’20.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

When they began gathering in preparation for their Spring Term abroad in Dakar, Senegal, they were acquaintances at best — fellow Lawrence students, yes, but close friends, no.

Ten weeks in Senegal changed that in ways that Bronwyn Earthman ’21, Tamima Tabishat ’20, Miriam Thew Forrester ’20, and Greta Wilkening ’21 never saw coming. The study abroad experience, a full immersion in Senegalese life and culture and French and Wolof languages, created deep bonds that continue now that they’re back on campus in Appleton, dramatically altering post-Lawrence plans for at least one of them, maybe more.

“We bonded,” Tabishat said. “We moved as a unit; we checked in on each other. … When one of us wasn’t there, it was like incomplete. It’s crazy because even at Lawrence now, we all do our own thing but when we see each other there’s just this connection.”

Learn more about Lawrence’s biennial study abroad program in Senegal here

That connection has led to something that Dominica Chang, the Margaret Banta Humleker Professor of French Cultural Studies and an associate professor of French, has never seen in her time leading the Lawrence immersion program in the West African country. Friendships blossom all the time during study abroad experiences. But this was different. Consider that all four of these students are now taking an independent study course with Chang during Fall Term to continue their studies in the Wolof language. That has never happened before.

“I reached out to Dominica about doing a Wolof tutorial just to continue learning Wolof,” Earthman said. “I mentioned it in a group chat, and then within a day everyone was like, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’”

Wolof is one of a dozen indigenous languages in Senegal, a francophone country with deep ties to France. While French is the dominant language, Wolof is spoken by many of the locals in Dakar, where the students were living and learning during their time abroad.

For the four students, the draw to continue with Wolof lessons this term comes from a place of shared passion, deeper than any of them would have anticipated when they set out on their study abroad excursion in late March. The time in Senegal created intellectual and emotional connections with the place and the people of Dakar, and all four said they wanted to embrace and build on that. And to do it together in Appleton, as a group, or unit.

“When Bronwyn proposed the Wolof thing, I was like, well, I already have 18 credits,” Tabishat said. “And they’re all saying, ‘I’m doing it,’ ‘I’m doing it,’ ‘I’m doing it.’ So, I adjusted my schedule because we don’t do anything with just three of us. I can’t just not. I had to justify that to my advisors. I said, ‘The other girls are doing it, and I don’t want to miss out because it’s just as important to me.’”

Earlier story: Students checked in midway through term in Senegal

They now meet with Chang weekly for Wolof lessons in an independent study program designed to pick up where they left off when they departed Dakar in early June. Chang had accompanied the foursome to Senegal, teaching in the Baobab Center while there.

Celebrating the Wolof language was one of the students’ big takeaways from their time in Dakar. For 10 weeks, they met every day with instructors at the Baobab Center, learning terms and phrases and proper usage. They did their best to speak Wolof when greeting people at the market or in their neighborhoods, where they were living with host families.

“It’s something we all value a lot and something we want to continue,” Wilkening said of the new studies with Chang. “For us, we learned it there and lived it there. It’s not just a language but more about how we communicated with our friends who we became so close to while we were there.”

The students gained the respect of Dakar residents because they made the effort to learn and use Wolof. Friendships grew from there.

“There’s that point of preserving something you started,” Tabishat said of her motivation to sign up for the independent study this term. “I think it’s partially academic but also emotional because we communicated with people who couldn’t speak French, which is the colonial language, so you had to use Wolof, and that’s such a deeper connection. In the market and other places, the reaction people have when you are able to speak Wolof is crazy. They are shocked, which is insane to me because French people have been there forever and yet they’re still shocked when you speak Wolof. It’s something we value because we value those people so much.”

The four students — they dub themselves the SeneGals on Instagram — come from different disciplines. Earthman is studying biology, Tabishat is in global studies, Thew Forrester has a double major in government and English, and Wilkening is in environmental studies. Each dived deep into an academic service project that related to their majors while in Senegal.

For Thew Forrester, that service project involved studying artistic identity and how government, politics, and language in Senegal interact with the pursuit of art and personal expression. That will now become a key focus of her graduate school studies, and she plans to return to Senegal to pick up on what she started.

The idea of going back wasn’t on Thew Forrester’s radar when she first arrived in Dakar. Not even close. She was more than a little anxious about the 10-week commitment, she said, having signed up only because she thought the immersion in the French language would help her in pursuit of a French minor.

“I almost didn’t go,” she said. “I think now about what I would be doing, where I’d be if I hadn’t gone there and had that experience.”

Her SeneGals nod in agreement.

“I think all of us have a dream of going back at some point,” Tabishat said. “If possible, maybe together.”

Want to hear more from Earthman, Tabishat, Thew Forrester, and Wilkening? Tune in to the live Lawrence University Giving Day webcast at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10. The four students will be talking with host Terry Moran ’82 about their Senegal experience.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu