Oakton students pose with program faculty members at a University of Ghana sign. Credit: Robert Kwabenah Havor

28-year-old Jernone Smith’s first airplane ride was not a simple, hour-long trip from, say, O’Hare to Cleveland.

Rather, it was a 5,800 mile overnight journey from Chicago to Accra, the capital of Ghana.

Smith, and a fellow Evanstonian and Oakton College student, 26-year-old Trinton Jones, were among a dozen students who spent most of June in the West African nation, as part of the Study Abroad program at Oakton.

“I was always interested in traveling to Africa,” Smith told Evanston Now.

“As a Black male, I wanted to research my family’s lineage, including the African-American diaspora and the international slave trade.”

Smith, Jones and the other students (some from Oakton, some from Malcolm X College in Chicago) took history and literature classes at the University of Ghana, as well as visiting important landmarks, both urban and rural.

“As soon as you step off the plane,” said Jones, “you dive head-first into the culture.”

Jones said it was obvious to the Ghanaians that the students were American, but still, “the presence of so many people of color, with Black people everywhere, created a sense of calmness and relief.”

Trinton Jones, holding the Oakly mascot, and Jemone Smith at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. Credit: Laura Roemer

Smith said in both metropolitan Accra and the outlying countryside, it was possible to feel “the same sense of community and the richness of culture.”

Oakton has had international studies programs for some time, both through the school itself and through a statewide consortium of community colleges.

However, Professor Katherine Schuster, Oakton’s global studies coordinator, said this was the first year that an African nation was on the list.

“Traditionally,” Schuster said, “a lot of study abroad programs have been Euro-centric. We are trying to break out of that, and expand with diversity.”

While Schuster comes from a very different background than did the students on the Ghana trip, she also knows how studying overseas can be “life-changing.”

Raised in a small town in South Dakota, Schuster said being a high school exchange student in Finland “fundamentally changed my whole life.”

Going overseas “opened up the whole world for me,” she added.

And so it was for the Oakton students who went to Ghana, with in-person visits to slave-trade sites resonating painfully and personally for the Americans of African ancestry.

Jones recalled visiting a dungeon, where those being sold into slavery had to endure a “torture chamber” before going through the “door of no return” and a trip in chains to America or some other land.

The enslaved individuals, Jones said,’ “had to bend down” and go through multiple doors, each smaller than the other.

“The meaning,” he said, was to break you down until you were off to the ship.”

“Those things stick with you,” Jones added.

“I probably still can’t get rid of the smell” from my nostrils, he noted. “The sadness. The evil.”

Smith said “just observing” what enslaved people suffered through even before arriving at an American plantation was so powerful, “I couldn’t really process how I was feeling in those moments.”

“You were no longer viewed as a human being. You were property.”

While history and the slave trade were key components of the program, there were also visits to traditional clothing-making sites, and plenty of chances to sample what was often a very spicy cuisine.

Oakton student Trinton Jones on Mount Gemi, a three-and-a-half hour drive northeast of Accra. Credit: Jernone Smith

There was also a journey to a memorable mountain, and a beautiful waterfall, a chance, Smith said, to “interact with nature.”

Professor Schuster said, “A lot of people come to Oakton not even knowing these overseas programs exist.”

In this particular case, the $4,100 cost was covered by a variety of sources, from the school to community fund-raisers, although that may not be the case for all such travels.

Still, Jones said, “Don’t let outside influences” scare you away from taking advantage of an opportunity such as this.

“Don’t take no,” he said, “for a final answer.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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