First-gen SDSU student embraces study abroad in Ghana to find her roots

Precious Letchaw joined other returning study abroad students to talk about how immersing themselves in a new culture and language changed their perspectives.

Thursday, February 8, 2024
A young woman in a teal t-shirt with white slacks is standing in a classroom amid a cluster of tables and chairs. She is handing a publication to a child.
Precious Letchaw handed out education materials during a donation event at an orphanage in Ghana last fall.

When Precious Letchaw, a first-generation student at San Diego State University, received the results of a commercial DNA ancestry test, her world shifted. Discovering her family’s roots traced back to West Africa ignited her eagerness to delve deeper into her heritage. 

She found an opportunity through a semester-long study abroad program at the University of Ghana. Though her journey last fall was primarily academic, the San Diego native and Lincoln High graduate made sure to dive deep into the culture, language, and natural beauty of the country, embracing the strangeness of her new surroundings in hopes of finding a sense of identity.

As she gained confidence, Ghana began to feel like home.

“Negotiating prices (at the market) was one of my favorite parts of the day because I was able to use Twi, the language I was learning in a classroom setting, out in the community with the locals, who got to know my name and recognize my face,” said Letchaw, a junior majoring in social work. “Something about that felt so good in my soul.”

Letchaw and three other SDSU students shared their recent study abroad experiences for a  panel discussion on “Your Identity Abroad,” the centerpiece of GEO Day 2024. SDSU’s Global Education Office organized the event to promote overseas programs and scholarship opportunities ahead of the upcoming study abroad application season.

The university and its partners offer study abroad across 77 countries, including 13 custom global seminars or embedded-course programs usually led by faculty. The deadline for applying for fall semester is Feb. 15. Students looking for summer sessions have until March 15 to apply.

For students, the academic and personal journey to a different country deepens their cultural and linguistic competence and adds great value to their resumes. These skills are increasingly valuable in today’s global ready workforce, said Cristina Alfaro, associate vice president of International Affairs.

More than 30 academic majors at SDSU require study abroad or some other form of global engagement.

“San Diego State believes in the benefits of cultural and linguistic immersion experiences,” said Alfaro. “When you go and study in a different part of the world, you will be able to deepen your knowledge and experiences with diversity; diversity of culture, language, and ideology. We really want to encourage you to engage in the language.” 

For the returning students, a key piece of advice involved being open-minded amid uncomfortable experiences. Daniela Silva, who traveled to Oaxaca for SDSU’s six-week summer Global Health Internship, saw people sleeping in the street outside hospitals waiting for an available bed.

“It changed my perspective of how the world works, how every country works,” she said. “Just seeing the disparities in health care was really interesting and shocking to me.”

She said the experience will increase her empathy in her career as a social worker, especially when working with migrants coming to the U.S. Through her participation in the Global Health Internship program, Silva improved her medical Spanish skills and recently earned the SDSU University Seal of Biliteracy and Cultural Competence (USBCC).

Ren McKinnell, a French major and Spanish minor at SDSU, worked as an au pair teaching English to three young boys during a year of studying in France. In the past, she has struggled with envisioning what lies ahead for her. But while abroad, her confidence grew. She won a French language contest for non-native speakers and met the U.S. Consul General for Marseille, who encouraged her to pursue a career in the foreign service.

“Compared with a couple of years ago, I don’t think my old self could imagine who I am and where I am today,” she said. “I think for a lot of people, studying abroad is an Instagram-able moment. But I would like to shift your thinking toward seeing study abroad as a path toward your future.”

Manny Carrillo, a criminal justice major who studied in Colombia, was struck by how the country has endured a 16-year conflict between the government and rebel groups.

“I came out of the trip more hopeful,” he said “Learning about the history of Colombia, what the people had gone through, and how they are able to collectively, as one, look toward a positive future, that was truly inspiring.”

For Letchaw, immersing herself in Ghana as deeply as possible “changed me more than I could have imagined.” 

“Just my toughness and pushing past my limits in so many special ways, readjusting and readapting what is a priority for me; what is a need versus what is a want,” she said. 

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