Championing bilingualism in Benin

Phil Spencer stands on a beach beside a fluttering Benin flag.

"The transition to studying in English is just another obstacle many of the students are working to overcome in the pursuit of their personal and professional goals. The club was another way to reach out and support them in any way I could."

— Phil Spencer

By Hillary Rose

Working and living abroad offers a plethora of learning opportunities and exceptional connections for students. Through the University of Ottawa’s CO-OP program, fourth-year economics student Phil Spencer seized the opportunity to work as an intern for four months at the African School of Economics (ASE) in Benin.

At first, Spencer knew very little about Benin, a French-speaking country bordered by Nigeria to the east and Togo to the west. Nor did he know a lot about what he would be doing during his internship at the ASE or where he’d be staying. However, he was determined to gain experience working overseas, so he took something of a leap of faith.

“I understand that if I want to work in development economics abroad in areas like poverty, health and education, there’s no better way to understand the challenges they bring than to meet and live among the people who face them every day of their lives,” explains Spencer.

Spencer went to Benin in September 2014, just as the African School of Economics was opening its doors to over 70 students from 12 African countries.

“Over half the student population is Beninese. Most of the other students are from Togo, Cameroon and Burkina Faso, with a scattering of students coming from other countries. The students are bright, driven and eager to learn. Many of them left their families back home to pursue their studies,” says Spencer.

The School currently offers two graduate-level programs—a master’s in mathematics, economics and statistics and a master’s in business administration. During his time as an intern, Spencer conducted empirical research with faculty members and worked directly with students to create online communication materials.

“I published news articles on their website about speakers who gave talks at seminars and events on campus. I interviewed students from English-speaking countries in East Africa to gain a deeper understanding of how they made the transition to living far away from home and how they were adapting in a predominately French-speaking environment. The main goal of the online materials was to provide future students with an idea of what they could expect, something that wasn't available on the website.”

Spencer also helped students improve their English by establishing an English learning club on campus. Although Benin is a francophone country, the African School of Economics offers its courses in English. Many of its students have embraced the benefits of bilingualism and made the choice to study in an English setting.

“Most students’ English language skills are rudimentary, so we worked on oral and written expression and comprehension skills materials like written articles, songs and video. We didn't just discuss topics in the English learning club—students were encouraged to think critically about the material. The transition to studying in English is just another obstacle many of the students are working to overcome in the pursuit of their personal and professional goals. The club was another way to reach out and support them in any way I could,” says Spencer.

In addition to working at ASE, Spencer made the most of his time in Benin by taking in the beauty of the country through weekend travels. One of these weekend voyages came about when his 90-day visa was about to run out.

“I had a choice to renew my visa in either Nigeria or Togo. One of the ASE students from Togo offered to show me and one of my American colleagues around Lomé. We couldn't turn down this generous offer, so we decided to take public transportation westward. It was an interesting trip because public transit there consists simply of several unmarked cars, which you flag down. You tell the driver where you’re going, agree on a price and hop in! You just need to have faith,” says Spencer.

For Spencer, the most enriching aspect of this international work placement was developing deep relationships with the dedicated students.

A group of about 45 students from the African School of Economics stand with Phil Spencer under the blue sky in Benin.

Phil Spencer stands flanked on both sides by students from the African School of Economics in Benin. Photo: Courtney Quinney

“The students at ASE are driven to succeed. Many students describe the development of their home country and of the African continent as the reason why they study so hard, often late into the night. I was able to be a part of the development and educational dreams of these students, which gave me a new perspective on what is possible for Africa and for these hard-working young adults,” says Spencer.

As an up-and-coming university in a francophone African country, ASE offers students the opportunity to receive a graduate-level education that meets international standards, close to home.

“I believe the partnership between ASE and the University of Ottawa creates the potential for sharing institutional knowledge on operating in a bilingual environment. Hopefully, this connection will continue to offer students at both institutions the opportunity to travel, work and study in an enriching new environment,” says Spencer.

Main photo:
Phil Spencer managed to spend some time on the beach in Benin as part of his uOttawa CO-OP experience. He stands next to the country’s flag. Photo: Courtney Quinney

Seven students sit around a table with Phil Spencer among them.

Phil Spencer and members of the English learning club. Photo: Courtney Quinney


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