WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Sierra Argo is researching the role psychology might play in curbing the AIDS pandemic ravaging much of Africa. Deanna Burgum is making traditional musical instruments with the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. And Matt Zimmerman is photographing wildlife along the Botswana-Namibia border as the African Wildlife Federation begins a preservation project.

Argo, Burgum and Zimmerman, along with four other Whitman students, are spending the spring semester in Botswana, a country of 1.5 million people near the southern tip of Africa. Whitman's seven students represent a surprisingly large portion of the 16 U.S. students in Botswana this spring as part of a program sponsored by Pitzer College.

The Pitzer program, based in part on cultural immersion, rotates participating students through a series of three home stays. Students live with families in small rural villages, small rural towns, and the larger, urban capital city of Gaborone.

After an intensive introduction to Setswana, the national language, students take classes from professors at the University of Botswana, travel throughout the country as part of a one- week study trip, and branch off into their own independent study projects.

Zimmerman, a Whitman junior from San Diego, Calif., reports by email that "all three of my host families have been very nice. Right now (late March in Gaborone), life is very similar to life in the U.S. with running water, electricity, TV, etc. But things were much different when I stayed in the small village of Ranaka. When the village pump broke down, there were some days without water. Even when we had water, I was bathing in one inch of water in a tub, cooking by fire, eating in the dark with my fingers, and writing by candlelight. Living like that for a month was an incredible experience. I really enjoyed it."

After living in Ranaka, Zimmerman and some students stayed with families in the "small town" of Francistown, which actually ranks as the second-largest city in Botswana and sits along the border with Zimbabwe. "We conducted interviews with people about health care, education and social services. We also researched a fourth special interest topic, and I studied the effects of Zimbabwean immigrants on Francistown. All of our information was then compiled into a report, about 70 pages, on the town where we were staying."

Botswana, known for its wildlife parks and diamond mines, is one of Africa's most politically and economically stable countries. With a diversity of societies ranging from hunter-gatherers to contemporary urban dwellers, Botswana enjoys overall standards of education and economic well-being rivaled on the continent only by neighboring South Africa.

Botswana has been anything but immune, however, to the plague of AIDS. "Living here has brought us face to face with AIDS," Zimmerman reports. "It's estimated that one in three people here is infected with the virus, with the number being even higher in some cities in the north. Everywhere we go there are billboards, posters, flyers, t-shirts and other messages, written in both Setswana and English, aimed at fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS."

"Despite all the government and independent efforts to curb the epidemic, the infection rates continue to rise," Zimmerman adds. "No matter what I say, I'm unable to communicate the situation here. Literally everywhere you look you see something related to AIDS. Every person and every facet of life is in some way affected by the disease."

Botswana's bleak AIDS situation provides a fertile research opportunity for Whitman's Sierra Argo, a junior psychology major from Los Alamos, N.M. Argo plans to base her senior thesis on ways psychology might be used to help check the spread of AIDS.

Zimmerman, also a psychology major, is devoting his independent study project to his love of photography. A photography intern in Whitman's Communications Office, Zimmerman is taking pictures of animals for the African Wildlife Federation.

Other Whitman students in Botswana this semester, and their independent study projects, are:

  • Deanna Burgum, a geology major from El Cajon, Calif., is making traditional music instruments and crafts with the Basarwa (Bushmen) of the Kalahari Desert.
  • Robin Horak, a biology major from Fort Collins, Colo., is working as a field biologist at a national park near Kasane.
  • Annie Marshall, an English major from Hopkinton, N.H., is making baskets with a women's co-operative near Maun in the Okavango Delta, the world's largest inland delta (5,700 square miles).
  • Megan Woods, a sociology major from Oakland, Calif., is making tapestries at Odi Weavers near Gaborone.
  • Nick Braus, a politics major from Madison, Wisc., is making pottery with an artisan in Ranaka.

A year ago, four Whitman students studied in Botswana: Kennan Knudson (Seattle, Wash.) interned with the Botswana Gazette; Jennifer New (Bellingham, Wash.) worked with a local environmental organization; Karin Pfeiffer-Hoyt (Acme, Wash.) researched traditional ethnic songs; and Katie Villano (Fairbanks, Alaska) worked for the Forestry Association of Botswana.

Africa as a "study abroad" destination is becoming increasingly popular for Whitman and U.S. students, according to Susan Holme Brick, director of international programs at Whitman. Over the past decade, she says, the number of American students studying in Africa has nearly quadrupled to about 4,500 (2000-01 academic year). Given the total number of students studying abroad, however, the number going to Africa remains relatively small at about three percent, Brick adds.

Last semester, Whitman students Emma Keefe (San Francisco, Calif.) and Molly Mayes (Camarillo, Calif.) studied in Ghana and Tanzania, respectively, through the School for International Training (SIT). This semester, Libby Winters (Falcon Heights, Minn.) is studying with the SIT program in Morocco. Whitman also offers an affiliated study abroad program in wildlife biology with the School for Field Studies in Kenya.

This year, about 146 Whitman juniors, or about 42 percent of that class, have studied abroad for one or two semesters. The most popular destinations for Whitman students, in recent years, have remained the United Kingdom, France, Austria and New Zealand. Other destination countries have included Denmark, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, Czech Republic, Australia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Chile and Cuba.