May 15, 2017
Justine Goode
Kiela Nelson '18, who appeared in the theater department's production of "For Colored Girls" this spring (above), has been awarded the Gilman Scholarship to study at the Dakar Institute in Senegal. Photo credit: John Seyfried

Kiela Nelson arrived at Oberlin with two distinct goals: to become fluent in French, and to strengthen her singing, dancing, and acting skills. After being granted the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship to attend the Dakar Institute’s Summer Program in Senegal, Nelson will be able to pursue both of these dreams in a new and challenging setting.

Nelson, a third-year Africana studies major from Chicago, did not anticipate being able to study abroad in college. Initially worried about the transfer of credits and expenses of traveling, she found the Dakar Institute’s Summer Program was an ideal opportunity: “I feel like this program was made for me,” says Nelson. “I got so lucky, because I’ve always wanted to learn French and to travel abroad. I’ll also be able to earn credits towards my Africana studies major, so it’s a win-win.” Nelson has taken four semesters of French during her time at Oberlin, but looks forward to the immersive aspect of living in a French-speaking society for several months.

“I’m excited to explore an entirely different country with different ideas. I’m hoping it will mold me into a better artist and a stronger scholar.”

The five-week session at the Dakar Institute, which Nelson will be attending alongside four other Oberlin students, gives its students the opportunity to participate in coursework and internships revolving around Senegalese society and African culture. Nelson is the only student whose trip will be funded by the the U.S. Department of State’s Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, a grant program that enables students of limited financial means to study or intern abroad. The Gilman Scholarship program also places a distinct emphasis on the study of languages, particularly “critical need languages” deemed important to national security and diplomacy.

Nelson learned about the Dakar Institute through fourth-year Kat Ford, who attended the summer program in 2016, as well as through info sessions hosted by the Africana studies department. Actively involved in Oberlin’s theater and dance departments, as well as organizations like Umoja Steppers and the hip-hop group And What!?, Nelson spoke with a program representative about importance of continuing her performing arts education while abroad. “Performing keeps me sane, and the program rep suggested that we might be able to get connected with dance companies in Dakar,” she says. Nelson and her fellow Oberlin students may also have the chance to teach their peers in the program and contribute to the curriculum, leading ExCo-style courses on music and dance.

Although she has not yet left for Senegal, Nelson is eager to spread the word about the Dakar Institute’s program, already envisioning the outreach efforts she will engage in upon her return. “So many students don’t look into study abroad programs because they’re worried their GPA isn’t high enough, or they can’t afford it,” she says. “I want to give minority students who don’t have the finances the confidence in their ability to apply to abroad programs. When I come back with actual stories and visuals, it will help them realize this is a possibility.”

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