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A journey to remember for International Development student

Katherine MacGregor with a group of students she presented to in Maun, Botswana. MacGregor worked for the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) where she promoted Canada and Canadian post-secondary institutions to high-achieving Botswana high school students. (Submitted Photo)

Uprooting your life to work and conduct research in a developing country is a unique experience among co-op students in the International Development Studies program. But for U of T Scarborough IDS student Katherine MacGregor, her co-op placement experience was a little more unique than most.

MacGregor settled in fairly quickly after arriving in Ghana albeit with a few challenges, namely the culture shock of being the only westerner in Bibiani, a rural town in the western part of Ghana.

“In Bibiani I was the only white person, the only Canadian, and I could only speak English,” says MacGregor. “Needless to say I stuck out.”

In addition to working as a girls club facilitator with the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), she even managed to knock off a few items on her bucket list including a tour of the slave castles at Cape Coast and Elmina and visiting Ghana’s famous Kejetia outdoor market in Kumasi.

But after three months MacGregor was forced to make a difficult decision. With growing concerns about the rapid spread of Ebola in neighbouring countries, she could be forced to leave part way through her placement. If the virus did spread to Ghana the borders would be closed off, making travel in or out of the country impossible. So after consulting with the IDS program director, she made the decision to pack her bags and leave.

“From the moment she came into the IDS Coop program, Katherine has always been one of those special hardworking, dynamic, and enterprising students,” says Paul Kingston, Director of the Centre for Critical Development Studies at UTSC.

“It is not surprising that she made the absolute most of a challenging placement experience.”

Not long after returning to Canada and with the help of IDS staff and faculty, MacGregor was jetting off on a new adventure, this time to the opposite side of the continent for a placement in Botswana.

“It was a whirlwind going from Canada to West Africa, back to Canada again before heading out to Southern Africa,” she says.

“It was a challenge mentally because for so long I had prepared myself for life and research in Ghana, so it was a little disorienting at first. Not only did I have to start a new placement, I also had to find a new research topic.”

Once in Botswana MacGregor again hooked up with WUSC, this time to work with the international scholarship management (ISM) program. Her job was to help promote Canada and Canadian post-secondary institutions to high-achieving Botswana high school students, while also providing personal academic and career counselling advice to students.

Thankfully, after two months in Botswana, MacGregor also found a suitable research topic. She would explore the issue of street harassment with a particular focus on Botswana youth.  

“Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment that takes place in public places between strangers. Typically men are the harassers and women are the targets,” says MacGregor.

“There is very little research done on it in general and even less on it in the developing world. More importantly, the youth voice is often left out of what little research there is, so that’s where I decided to put my focus.”

In addition to her research MacGregor says what she was able to accomplish in between including travelling throughout Gaborone and Johannesburg, visiting Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island and Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town – not to mention experiencing a wildlife safari and Victoria Falls – as moments she’ll never forget.

For all the ups and downs MacGregor, who documented her time abroad in a blog, says she wouldn’t swap her co-op experience for anything in the world.

“Going away on an IDS placement is certainly not a trip or vacation in the traditional sense and I don’t want to sound dramatic either, but it’s definitely a life-changing experience,” she says.

“It took me out of my comfort zone and because of that I grew tremendously over the year I was away. The transferable skills I learned, especially independence and self-confidence, I truly believe made me a more complete person.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough