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Evan DeFilippis

Evan DeFilippis

Boren Scholarships

University of Oklahoma


International Relations

I have read, and have heard from development professionals, that the lack of linguistic capacity and cultural awareness is often cited as a reason for failed development projects. Given my interests in developmental economics and entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan and Eastern Africa, I knew I needed to study Swahili. I am currently in Zanzibar, Tanzania as part of the African Languages Initiative. 

There are multiple components to my academic program in Zanzibar. The most formal of these components involves 23 hours a week of in-class, intensive Swahili instruction, three hours of which are dedicated to learning about Swahili current events, politics and economics. Alongside formal instruction, I am partnered with a “Rafiki wa Lugha” (Friend of the Language) and go on guided cultural excursions around the region. Recently, I’ve connected with one of my host father’s friends in order to help him collect data for a project on water sanitation. I have been helping him write survey questions and compile pre-existing research on water quality/scarcity. Given my interests in water sanitation, I have also been volunteering at an organization dedicated to improving water quality in Zanzibar. 

In addition, I have found that there is a lot to learn about Zanzibarian culture at the gym I go to every day. Unlike in the USA where there seems to be a sense of competition at the gym, in Zanzibar there is a strong sense of community. The stronger you are, the more responsibility you have to help others grow. I find this true outside of the gym as well. At the market, vendors will often personally lead you to other, competing vendors selling the item that you want to purchase, even if it means losing time that could be spent helping customers at their own kiosk. Generally, people aren’t concerned about maximizing profit or getting the most efficient return to every transaction; they care about conversation, human interaction and genuinely helping others, even if that means sacrificing time and money.

When I return from my overseas experience and graduate, I plan to pursue a Master’s in business or public administration. Ultimately, I would like to work on economic development projects with the U.S. Agency for International Development or the African Development Foundation. 

If I could give advice to other study abroad students, I would tell them to be sincere about their motivations in life. Studying in Africa, and I’m sure this is the case for a lot of places, can be mentally and physically exhausting. This is not a vacation; you will experience culture shock, no matter how invulnerable you perceive yourself to be. The only way to cope with occasional mood-swings, anxiety and a short-temper is to have a view of reality that is consistent with the goals you want to accomplish in life. Most days are incredibly rewarding, but when I do struggle, it helps to remind myself of the things I hope to accomplish in life, and how this experience is helping me reach those ends.

Written: November 2012