Penn Global Seminars

Q&A with Charlotte Cecarelli, Nursing ‘22

July 27, 2020
By Joseph Squillaro, Penn Abroad Leader, CAS ‘21

Charlotte Cecarelli, a member of the Class of 2022, participated in a PGS to Ghana during Spring Break of 2019 where she learned about culture, development and health in this incredible West African country. I sat down with her to learn more about her time abroad, her inspiring learning experiences, and what made them so meaningful.

Alright let’s get started! So where did you travel to and what did you study while there?
Yeah! So I did a Penn Global Seminar to Ghana. It was offered through the nursing school and what originally got me interested was that it really was the only PGS offered that semester that was related to health care and nursing, specifically. So I jumped at the idea of going and applied on a whim, thinking I wasn't going to get it but it obviously ended up working out! Before college, I never expected to go to Ghana as I never expected myself to be someone who would travel, especially to here. I knew I wanted to study abroad, but like I said, I didn't really expect it to be Ghana. However, in the end, I was so grateful for that experience and so far it has been one of my best experiences at Penn. I would definitely do it again and again!

Wow, that's great! Given the uniqueness of this PGS how did you find out about it?
I had heard about this PGS program through someone who was a senior at the time, but she told me that the PGS program itself was excellent and because I wasn't really interested in doing something super long, I didn't want to do a full semester. So, she told me to look into the PGS offerings and the only nursing one for the semester was the one to Ghana, so I applied to that one.

What surprised you most about learning in a new environment? 
One of the biggest aspects of this program that I found most beneficial was that we were actually paired with students from one of Ghana’s universities. There were students from Ghana and students from the US traveling, staying together and studying together. They taught us a lot about their education system and what they were studying. One of my roommates, who was from Ghana, was studying medicine and I got to learn a great deal from her. It was very interesting to compare both education systems while in this new environment.

Describe to me your favorite day on the trip and what that was like.
Oh, there were so many. Something I am very interested in is women and infant health and nursing and each day they would break us into smaller groups based on interests. One of the things I participated in was a tour of a hospital. I was in the mother-baby unit so that was really exciting for me. Another group I was in allowed us to meet one of the queen mothers for that area and she also works for a nonprofit that's really important for promoting women's reproductive health and education rights. She wanted to make sure that women can still have an equal access to education so meeting her and seeing a powerful female figure was really impactful on me and I really appreciated all the work that she put into helping these girls.

Was there a favorite travel experience that you had?
We went to Accra, which is the capital, Kumasi, and Cape Coast. I think just seeing the differences in those three cities was amazing because the capital is obviously more populated than the other two locations. When we went to Kumasi, which is where their university is, it was a bit more relaxed. But then on the Cape Coast it was a totally different experience because it's on the water. There's really beautiful scenery and beaches there and that is also where the slave castles are which we toured. That was a really impactful experience to say the least. We got around in a rickshaw-like vehicle called a tro tro and is a much more personal way to view these cities than just being in a big tour bus.

Small vehicles are certainly not for the faint of heart! How about the food? Was there anything really unique that you tried?
They have a lot of spicy food and a lot of meat. Going into the program, they asked if we had any dietary restrictions because of the fact that they eat a lot of meat there since a lot of places don't have refrigeration. And also because we were from the US we had to be careful about eating vegetables and fruit since of the differences in the water. I really liked this dish called jollof rice which was served with a lot of meals. It's kind of like a spicy rice with meat in it. They also have a dish called fufu, which is made of cassava. The food all had a bunch of unique flavors!

Was there any “touristy” things that you did and was it worth it?
Definitely a canopy walk we did in the National Forest. Okay, so picture really giant trees and they have leafy canopies between each tree really high off the ground. We walked up there and that was scary, but a cool scary! Totally worth it though!

What was a travel mishap you had, if any?
So the first night we got there I was very overwhelmed because I was the only freshman on the trip. So, really the only experience I had with the rest of the group were the classes that we had before. I hadn't really known any of them beforehand. When we got to the first hotel, the outlets in our room were not working, so I couldn't charge my phone with my roommates charger (I left mine on the plane). And then the water in the bathroom wasn't working so someone had to come and help us turn our water on. Everything just kind of fell apart at that one second. So that was a low point but luckily that was the first and only low point on the trip!

What was interacting with the locals like?
Definitely having a student from Ghana with us was super helpful and they were able to help us communicate with the locals. We would go to some of these markets where you'd have to barter to get the right price. So the students with us helped us with that because they were able to more easily communicate and barter to get the right price for things. Also being able to talk to taxi drivers was important.

How did you budget for your time abroad? Was there any unexpected expenses while there?
In terms of money, I kind of cut back on things I normally spent on at Penn beforehand. Like I wouldn't really spend as much money on food and I was at the dining halls more. I also cut back on my coffee. As for expenses, not at all. I was very impressed with the amount that was covered by the PGS program. Because another thing for me is that I am on financial aid so I was looking for an affordable study abroad option and this fit that necessity for me. I was then even more surprised when I figured out that it included things such as most of our meals too. So I really didn't have to spend much money on food while I was there either. The only thing I really spent money on were little trinkets to bring home, but nothing else really.

What were the people like on your trip?
Yeah, I got to know them very well while I was there. They were all very caring and just really friendly people. A lot of us were studying healthcare related things because of the nature of the class. So we were able to bond over that while there. There were also a lot of nursing students that were older than me that I was able to ask questions to. I think over the week we really became like a family, especially with the students from Ghana that were there with us. It was very impactful having them there with us and at the end when we were leaving, it was so sad to say goodbye. We still have a group chat where we talk to the other students!

What did you learn about yourself by going on this trip?
I think, you know, going back to that first night where everything wasn't so great, I had to learn to be more flexible and accept change as a positive thing, rather than a negative thing. I think that since then I've been able to handle situations better. In terms of the actual course, I think it taught me to see healthcare from a different angle due to a case study we looked at involving sickle cell disease, which is most prominent in people of African descent. I actually wrote my final paper about this because it was really important to me. In the US, it can often be misperceived as people having substance abuse because people facing this disorder will usually go to the ER and need painkillers. Sickle Cell Disease can cause extreme pain for them. So this component shows the bias in healthcare and seeing it from a different light in Ghana was very insightful.

What advice would you give to another student looking to go abroad?
I think just being really open to new experiences. I know that I didn't come into college having a set idea of what kind of abroad experience I wanted to have. But it had such an impact on my time at college so far. So I think just being open to taking those new opportunities at Penn abroad. Just take advantage of them and do something you wouldn't have expected to do.

Any last thoughts about your trip?
Americans have a lot of misconceptions about Ghana and African countries in general. Images in the media and children's literature can portray these areas in a false way. Traveling to Ghana, I was able to see the country in a new light and was really able to understand the culture and people far better. It was a truly beautiful place.

Rapid-Fire Questions

What was the most essential item that you packed?
Definitely sunscreen.

Any useful slang terms you learned?
Probably “Akwaaba” which means welcome.

Favorite place you traveled?
The nonprofit where we met with the queen mother. I really liked the hospitals though too! Too many choices!

What are three words you would use to describe your study abroad experience?
Impactful, family, and inspiring.

Last but not least, where are you going next either literally or metaphorically?
I am not sure yet, but I want to maybe do travel nursing in the future!