The Real Deal: An African Adventure
By: Mandy Housenick
GoLeopards.com Featured Columnist
Turks and Caicos was a tempting destination, so tempting that it was on Stephanie Nickerson's short list of countries in which she wanted to study abroad.
And why not? It's a beautiful island filled with luxurious resorts and stunning beaches situated on the Atlantic Ocean.
With the clock ticking and her choice needing to be finalized, Nickerson, now a Lafayette College senior, put a lot of thought into what she wanted to get out of the month-long trip.
"The big thing was I wanted to put myself in a different environment and make changes and come back with those changes," said Nickerson, who's a member of the Leopards' swim team.
Nickerson decided Turks and Caicos really didn't fit the bill. It was a plane ride away and set out in the middle of a major body of water, but it was a British Overseas Territory located in North America, used the American dollar and English was the official language.
Not exactly the makings of a "different environment."
"I wanted to see something totally new," she said.
"I wanted to see something totally new. When people ask about my trip, I can't sum it up. I can't put into words how much it's helped me."
So Nickerson opted for Tanzania, one of the world's poorest countries, located on the east coast of Africa. Her accommodations were anything but luxurious. She didn't get to take a hot shower unless she attached a small heater to the water head, and then it was barely more than a steady drip; she lived on a campus in a cottage that she described as "almost cement;" and ate more rice and beans that she ever would in the U.S.
None of it bothered Nickerson.
"I have to say, when I left the United States, I tended to always be with groups of friends," she said. "I'm still very social, but I definitely feel like I'm not scared to be by myself now. I've learned more about myself as a person. I feel like I found a better me.
"When people ask about my trip, I can't sum it up. I can't put into words how much it's helped me."
Nickerson thanks Lafayette and swimming coach Jim Dailey for that.
"By far, one of the reasons I came to Lafayette was because I knew could study abroad and be an athlete," Nickerson said. "When I brought it up to Jim this summer, he immediately said he thought it would be good for me and I shouldn't let swimming get in the way. He makes it clear that academics come first all the time. Academically, if we are struggling, he knows. He knows what's going on with us in and out of the pool. It's great to have a coach who wants you to do well academically because he sees that is important for our future, but he wants us to be good swimmers too."
There's no doubt Nickerson is a good swimmer, especially when it comes to the 200 and 400 IM and the 200 breaststroke.
But while she was in Tanzania, swimming took a bit of a back seat, and Dailey didn't mind at all. He's well aware of the flexibility naturally afforded to athletes who are swimmers, divers and runners. They don't have to be present for the team to train and practice like soccer, football and basketball teams do.
There are sacrifices that need to be understood by the athlete, of course. As Dailey said, his swimmers have every intention of swimming and training hard while they're abroad. Then life gets in the way.
"They know when they leave they probably won't be in the same spot when they come back," he said.
"But I think college is about preparing our youth for being an adult, and part of that process is having them figure out who they are. Sometimes we can assist in that by being a mentor, and other times we can assist in that by getting out of the way. Sometimes kids are so focused on the end result that they forget the stuff in between. That journey is what takes us from Point A to whatever our destination is, and that is never a straight line. By taking away those experiences and limiting them to only academics and a sport, that can take away who they are going to be."
Nickerson, a biology major, still has some thinking to do about what exactly she is going to be. Her trip this summer, though, gave her some clarity.
She spent countless hours working in a program for wildlife management during which she studied poaching and did a paper on giraffes and how their gender affected the number of giraffes in a group. In addition, she and others students in her group would actually note the number and types of animals - and there were a lot - they saw during a drive in a national park. Nickerson got to see hyenas, elephants, warthogs, lions, which she said are the most dangerous animals in Africa, and hippos, which she noted kill more people than sharks.
"This trip made me realize I definitely want to work in wildlife," she said.
While in Tanzania, Nickerson actually received offers from national park rangers to start working there full-time immediately. Although it was tempting, she politely turned down the offers and explained the importance of completing her degree. She's already thought about returning either to Africa or looking for work in South American or Europe.
Nickerson said her parents are a little hesitant about her moving alone to Tanzania. They'd prefer that she finds someone else she either knows personally or is a friend of a friend from the U.S. to make the venture there with her.
"Right now I definitely want to get out of the U.S.," Nickerson said. "I live in Doylestown. I go school in Easton. I haven't really gotten out of that small Pennsylvania bubble. I'd like to be more important. Going abroad allowed me to learn more about myself and another culture. Not everybody is the same."
"She has a heart of gold. She cares about everybody. She has unbelievable energy. She's a true friend, a great person, a great role model."
- Head Coach
That really hit home with Nickerson when one native asked her how many boyfriends she had back home. She kindly explained that American culture is different - you have one boyfriend, one girlfriend, one wife or one husband.
Then she again realized how sheltered parts of Africa are when she visited an orphanage to take part in community service.
"I got to teach English to couple kids by reading to them," she explained. "They started looking through my phone and were confused when they saw a picture of my best friend - Kyle Mayfield (a black Lafayette football player). They didn't understand how African Americans can be in the U.S. That was really upsetting to me that they don't know the truth."
Nickerson now knows many truths about Africa she didn't before, plus she discovered a lot about herself and has started to have a better understanding of all she has in America.
"Since coming back here," Nickerson said, "I appreciate a lot of little things now that I know I took for granted before."
Dailey, though, never takes Nickerson for granted.
"She has a heart of gold," her coach said. "She cares about everybody. She has unbelievable energy. She's a true friend, a great person, a great role model."