Carley Kwiatkowski strives to dispel stereotypes of African culture

by University Communications,

As commencement approaches, our graduates reflect on their Willamette experience and share their plans for the future. This is the first of our five-part series.

While the media tells stories of Africa’s deprivation, chaos and ignorance, Carley Kwiatkowski ’13 has experienced kindness, generosity and wisdom.

Since high school, Kwiatkowski has traveled to East Africa four times to teach, learn Swahili and perform research. After graduating from Willamette University in May, she will once again head to Eastern Africa — where she will intern with the Southern Economic Development Organization.

Through leadership positions on campus and abroad, Kwiatkowski strives to share her understanding of East African cultural diversity and encourage critical reflection.

“I feel a personal integrity to the people who shared their lives with me and took care of me throughout my time in Kenya and Tanzania,” she says.

“I want to confront singular, one-dimensional narratives of Africa and learn from the innovation that emerges from the continent.”

Exploring Africa

Kwiatkowski sought out her first experience in Africa as a newly graduated high school student, traveling to Kenya to teach English for a year with Maasai Education and Advocacy for Change.

In Kenya, she learned to appreciate a different rhythm of life, where story telling and community took the place of running water, television and other creature comforts.

“For a lot of us, Africa is a distant place of exotic animals and people, of extreme poverty and disease, and of wars and corruption,” she says.

“What I saw and experienced fell within a broader, more diverse spectrum: my host mom cooking over an open fire and talking on her cell phone, or my host sister balancing a job at a bank with night classes at a Nairobi university.”

Though Kwiatkowski has compiled an impressive resume of grants and internships, she says her research in Africa has never felt like work.

As a freshman, she was awarded a College Colloquium Student Research Grant to conduct an oral history project in Kenya, where she explored the social and environmental changes encountered by one Maasai community.

“I was able to sit down, drink tea and listen to people’s stories,” she says. “I learned how life has changed in their community, which set the foundation for my thesis research and other interests.”

When Kwiatkowski returned to Willamette, she took her funding search to the national level — earning the National Security Education Program David L. Boren Undergraduate Scholarship in 2011.

The Boren scholarship allowed Kwiatkowski to study Swahili in Tanzania for one year. In her spare time, she interned at the Zanzibar Institute for Research and Public Policy, translated for Jishike Social Couture and volunteered at an adult education center.

Kwiatkowski, a history major, says the constant support of her professors and scholarship advisors helped turn her passion for Africa into invaluable research and internship experiences.

“Because Willamette is a small school, the faculty and staff really take the time to give you feedback and help guide your academic and personal development,” she says. “I know that the hard work that goes into preparing for class or writing a paper is well worth it, because the professors really care.”

Bringing Africa to Willamette

As president of Africa Club, Kwiatkowski shares her enthusiasm for African culture and history with the Willamette community.

Each year the club organizes Africa Week, emphasizing the diversity of the African continent through film screenings, guest lectures, discussions and an African market.

Kwiatkowski also works with Willamette’s Institute for the Interdisciplinary Social Analysis of Complex Global Challenges (ISA-CGC), where she investigates diasporic efforts to bring health resources to Senegal and Ghana.

Joyce Millen, one of the primary investigators for ISA-CGC, says Kwiatkowski’s passion for Africa is evident in everything she does — whether it be conducting research on specific diaspora associations, transcribing interviews with African informants or preparing orientation materials for a Willamette post-session in Ghana.

“Carley embodies the best of Willamette,” Millen says. “She carried on all these responsibilities — sometimes with very little support — while working, excelling in her challenging academic career and volunteering her time in local schools.”

Though she says her primary objective is her education, Kwiatkowski has learned to balance her many Africa-related commitments with leading a Take-A-Break trip and performing in the Willamette Dance Company.

“I seek out different opportunities because there is always a chance to meet someone new and learn from them,” she says. “The connections I make in all the activities I’m involved with are really meaningful and help sustain me in times of stress.”

Learning From The Past

Kwiatkowski’s connections are more than a support system — they have helped her land a unique internship beginning immediately after graduation.

In June, Kwiatkowski will join a team of University of Florida faculty and students in Kenya at the Southern Economic Development Organization (SEDO) — an organization that supports rural communities with livelihood projects and helps small, rural business entrepreneurs gain access to resources and markets.

The internship position at SEDO will allow her to learn from the project leaders while performing research and writing reports.

After working in Kenya, Kwiatkowski plans to eventually pursue a history doctorate, with an emphasis on East African cultural history.

“African studies increases my sensitivity to the ways in which domestic and international issues bear on a place that is often distanced, removed and unfamiliar to the general American public,” she says.

“How we see and understand Africa will determine whether the ways in which we engage with the continent in the future can be meaningful and mutual, or perhaps detrimental and ineffective.”

• Story by Katie Huber ’13, politics major