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Kenyan connections

Community building at home and abroad
By Jennifer Coffman

Jennifer Coffman founded and directs the successful Field School in Kenya. Students live with and learn from local families, while also exploring sustainable projects with their community hosts.

Jennifer Coffman founded and directs the successful Field School in Kenya. Students live with and learn from local families, while also exploring sustainable projects with their community hosts.

When I was a junior in college, I didn't know that my travels to East Africa would open a lifelong commitment to Kenya. Likewise, when I moved to the Shenandoah Valley a dozen years later, I had little idea that I would be so involved in issues of local food production and land use. How these opportunities unfolded for me underscores the fact that we need not set out with grand plans to have our lives changed, nor must we outline in advance our specific contributions to the lives of others. Being aware of and open to possibilities enables us to discover paths worth following. When we do, great things can happen.

JMU Field School in Kenya

In both Kenya and our local valley, I examine the politics of land access and ownership, sustainable food production, and resource distribution. I merge many interests and duties through the JMU Field School in Kenya, which I created in 2003 and direct. It is an intensive summer program focusing on Kenya's history, cultures and environments. The program's founding values include a strong commitment to social responsibility, and it is designed to ensure that the majority of in-country costs directly benefit our host communities in Kenya.

For part of the program, students stay with Kenyan families and immerse themselves in their daily lives. "Not only was this the happiest time in my life, but it was also the most interesting and broadening experience," says Ben Wilson ('08) about his 2007 trip.

The students' experiences have long-term impacts. Katie Imbriglia ('10), who participated in 2009, says, "Kenya continues to be one of the most amazing experiences. I constantly think about what we learned."

Through the Kenya program, and with independent fundraising, my students and I contribute to school and community projects, including school scholarships based on merit and need, supplementary food programs for three primary schools (we purchase and supply Kenyan-grown beans and maize to under-resourced schools), academic and sports supplies for at least four primary schools, and other community-based projects in our homestay areas. We strive to buy locally produced goods (desks, food, uniforms, books from East African publishers), hire local laborers to construct things like community wells, and patronize local, family-owned shops. By favoring local goods and labor, our investments provide even more benefits. Further, students reflect on their own practices, and often some significant changes result. One student wrote on her program evaluation: "My experience in Kenya has certainly made me more conscious of my daily consumption and daily activities I take for granted like turning on the tap and knowing there will be water. I encourage more students to embark on this program."

Ecology and the politics of farming—an internship

Closer to home, my students and I pursue environmental work mainly through collaborative research on local food production in the Shenandoah Valley. I created a farm internship program for JMU students, sponsored by the JMU Office of International Programs and ISAT. Students work on local farms and earn academic credits while learning about the ecology and politics of farming. With a variety of partners, I'm working to expand collaborations focusing on sustainable food systems, and thus further greening Virginia farms.

About the Author Jennifer Coffman is associate executive director of the JMU Office of International Programs and an integrated science and technology professor. She focuses on internationalization and environmental efforts, including curricular development, program design and implementation with international partner institutions in community outreach. She teaches a variety of courses on environment, development and Africa. She also chairs the U.S. board of Carolina for Kibera, an organization co-founded by one of her former students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Condensed from the article in the Fall 2010 Madison magazine. Read more.