|Marilyn Johnson , VCS International Service Learning Ghana Exchange Program|
VCS International Service Learning Ghana Exchange Program
Marilyn Johnson raised three children and supported her family doing a variety of jobs, including substitute teacher, playground director, paraprofessional teacher and piece worker for Levi Strauss. Urged on by a teacher and assistant principal, she decided to have a classroom of her own. She graduated from college at the age of 43 with a degree in secondary social studies.
“The college experience opened up the history of African Americans in a new way to me,” she recalls. During her youth, a lot of African American history was left out of textbooks. In college she learned things about her own history that brought a renewed pride and interest.
Later Marilyn began teaching middle school at a predominately black school in Valdosta, Ga., where she was presented the opportunity to set up a cultural and educational exchange program with a school in Ghana, Africa. It is called VCS International Service Learning Ghana Exchange Program.
She attributes her interest in bridging cultures to growing up as a “military brat” between Valdosta and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina during segregation. While attending school and living on the military base she came into contact with various cultures and races of people – an experience she believes contributed to her love of people, languages and tolerance of other cultures. As a teacher she realized that her students did not have realistic views of other cultures and misunderstood their own history and culture.
Ghana was chosen as the country for the exchange program because most African Americans can trace their history back to West Africa and because many Ghanaians speak English. The first exchange took place in 2008, when four Ghanaian students and two sponsors visited Valdosta. Eight American students and six sponsors traveled to Ghana in 2009.
“To finally travel to my homeland and to provide students the opportunity to see and learn about their roots was truly inspiring,” Marilyn says. In Ghana, the American students stayed with Ghanaian families, went to local schools and learned about the local culture, language and history. They returned with a newfound desire to help dispel myths about Africa and its people and share the pride that they now felt for their history.
The exchange program proved so successful that it has expanded to other schools in Georgia and Ghana.
Now widowed and a grandmother to eight children, Marilyn says, “I know after I am gone the success of this exchange will continue and will always be a part of these students’ lives.”