Westminster woman to study in Ghana

September 25, 1994|By Karen Zeiler | Karen Zeiler,Contributing Writer

This summer's political crisis in Nigeria may have thwarted Michele Bollinger's plans, but it did not weaken her resolve -- or her longing for a taste of African culture.

Miss Bollinger, 22, will spend the next 10 months in Accra, Ghana, studying African history at the University of Ghana at Legon, on a Rotary Academic Ambassadorial Scholarship.

On Wednesday, she will leave her home in Westminster, where she lives with her parents, Edward and Susan; her sister, Denise, 19; and her brother, Bryan, 14.

"I'm excited for the culture shock," said Miss Bollinger, who graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in history from Wake Forest University.

"I'm definitely a risk-taker type. I throw myself into things."

With the choice of almost any university in the world, what made this honor student from Maryland choose one in Africa?

"I wanted a truly significant cultural experience," said Miss Bollinger, whose interest in the region intensified after she took an African history course in her junior year. "I also felt like it would be too easy to go to Australia or England."

Her parents understood her desire for the challenge Africa could provide.

"Given that she could have gone anywhere, it was a bit of a surprise to us," Mr. Bollinger said. But he added that the choice was in keeping with her ambitious goals.

"She has always been a person of her own mind," he said. "She is not about to do the typical or the usual."

She originally was scheduled to leave four weeks ago for Ile-Ife, Nigeria. But widespread riots, protests and strikes in and around Lagos, the capital, raised concern for her safety.

Last month, two teachers who had guided her through the application process -- Dr. Simeon Ilesanmi, assistant professor of religion at Wake Forest, and Dr. Yomi Durotoye, a former Wake Forest professor who lives and teaches in Nigeria -- advised her not to go.

"That was real hard because I had invested a lot of personal energy," said Miss Bollinger, who graduated from Westminster High School in 1990.

The unrest followed the military's detainment in June of Moshood K. O. Abiola, the undeclared winner of last year's presidential election.

Since November, the country has been under a military dictatorship led by Gen. Sani Abacha.

The nation was paralyzed this summer by the strike of 50,000 oil and gas workers, who were joined by students and educators at Nigeria's state-run universities. The strike reached Obafemi Awolowo University, where Ms. Bollinger had planned to begin classes last month.

"When I talked to Dr. Durotoye, he said, 'Call me when the military gives up power,' and I said to myself, 'That could be a year from now.' "

It was a setback, but Miss Bollinger did not give up. During her research, she had identified several prestigious schools in Africa, one of them in Ghana.

In late August she began working on another application.

On Sept. 7, less than a week after it had been mailed, the university called to say she had been accepted.

About 1,000 academic scholarships are awarded each year by 170 Rotary districts across the United States, said Judy Huff, a spokeswoman for the organization.

The award covers transportation to the school selected by the winner and up to $20,000 in tuition and living expenses. Ms. Bollinger applied last year through Rotary District 7690 in North Carolina while a junior at Wake Forest.

Dr. Ilesanmi says Miss Bollinger is ideal for a cultural exchange.

"She is very articulate and has a professed commitment to academics," he said.

"It's unfortunate she will not be able to go to [the school in] Nigeria -- its history department is one of the very best in terms of its library collection and quality of faculty. But the one she has chosen in Ghana is equally outstanding and well-respected."

During their year abroad, scholarship recipients must submit three written reports to Rotary International and give talks in the host country about American society.

bTC Miss Bollinger, who enjoys writing and public speaking, said she looking forward to the chance to interact with the people of Ghana.

After her year away from home, she said, she is considering a career in foreign service or a position as a college administrator.

But her present focus is on Africa.

"It's going to be a challenge, going to Ghana, or going anywhere in the Third World," she said.

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