Students gain firsthand international development experience in Kenya

Kelly Jedrzejewski
October 28, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Five students in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences had the opportunity of a lifetime when they spent more than two weeks in Kenya as part of the embedded course, “Issues in Economic, Community and Agricultural Development in Kenya.”

This course is part of an initiative to develop viable economic and youth development options for former street-dwelling children in Kenya. Students learn about cultural, economic and social conditions, then build on this knowledge to develop options for youth development and entrepreneurship.

The course has been offered annually for about 10 years, and Janelle Larson, associate professor of agricultural economics, noted that it will be held in the spring 2020 semester. Larson was the initiator of the class and has been teaching it with Sjoerd Duiker, professor of soil management and applied soil physics, and Brian Thiede, assistant professor of rural sociology, sociology, and demography.

Larson said before traveling in May, students in the class prepare by spending time getting to know more about Kenya. Topics covered in the first part of the course include the history of Kenya, current socioeconomic conditions and things that impact youth poverty in the country.

“We are very intentional about how we prepare our students,” Larson said. “We want them to recognize what they are learning and gaining from this experience and approach it with humility. We are not there to implement our ideas; we are going to help. I want students to be open to that collaboration.”

While in Kenya, students work with the Children and Youth Empowerment Centre in Nyeri on projects identified as priorities by staff at the center. Larson said this class gives students the opportunity to gain practical experience working and learning about community development while supporting the initiatives of the center. This year, the students worked on two projects: one to develop a prototype landfill and another to facilitate an assessment of food security in neighborhoods that the center serves.

Kenya landfill

Penn State students Peter Savchik and Javier Montaner help compact trash in a prototype landfill. 

IMAGE: Sam Kairu

Larson explained that Nyeri, like many communities in Kenya, lacks a safe way to handle its waste. Two youth volunteers at the center were working to develop and commercialize “waste to value” initiatives, including making charcoal briquettes from waste and recycling other materials.

When the local municipality decided to build a new landfill, the volunteers wanted to ensure its safety, considering air and water quality in both the design and management of the site. The Penn State students researched the design of landfills in resource-poor environments and worked with volunteers to design and build a prototype landfill at the current dumpsite. The work of the volunteers and students even caught the attention of the local media.

Junior Kayla McCauley, an environmental meteorology major from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was one of the three students assigned to the landfill project. She said being part of this class was an incredible experience.  

McCauley, who is minoring in environmental inquiry and in geographic information science, sees a future for herself working in low-income countries. “The biggest takeaway for me was the results of different groups of people working side-by-side. It was amazing to see how combining our skills and efforts could make a positive change.”

The second project focused on food security. Larson said the center did not have any real understanding of the incidence of food insecurity or risk factors, so it was interested in developing a survey and methodology to help determine how prevalent food insecurity is and to identify who is at greatest risk of lacking adequate food.

The students developed an instrument that includes the Food Insecurity Experience Scale, or FIES, as well as general information on household demographics and dietary diversity. The FIES is used globally and identifies mild, moderate or severe levels of food insecurity. Students worked with staff at the center to ensure that the survey was culturally appropriate and to train the enumerators who conducted the survey. The data now is being analyzed.

Fifth-year community, environment, and development major Kaitlin Morton, of South Orange, New Jersey, was part of the team working on the food security assessment. Morton, who is minoring in international agriculture and in environmental engineering, explained that a lot of research went into completing the assessment.

“The goal is to use the local language and incorporate local knowledge into the survey so it doesn’t seem like you’re just an outsider there to observe without any interest in getting to know the people you’re working with,” Morton said. “It makes people feel really uncomfortable and it also affects the survey results.”

Kenya village

Kaitlin Morton, Javier Montaner and Janelle Larson visit an eco-village site in Othaya. 

IMAGE: Sam Kairu

Larson hopes that her students gained an appreciation for the individuals with whom they worked during the trip. “I tell students that when it comes to international development work, it’s not necessarily having the right answers, it’s having the right questions,” she said.

“I think most students walk away from the experience with a new understanding of the challenges and the complexities of doing international development work. I also hope they recognize the resources and the capabilities that are in the local environment, everything from institutions and universities to the dedication and the ingenuity of the people we work with.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 03, 2020