SIT Alumna Kim Foote

Ghana sojourn led to a Fulbright and a writing career

SIT’s “living classrooms” made all the difference for writer Kim Foote.

Kim FooteKim Foote has written a memoir and a novel, won a Fulbright grant, and pursued two career paths. It all started with an SIT Study Abroad program in Ghana.

Kim first went to Ghana in 1999 as part of an SIT program on African diasporas.

“I had started getting interested in the slave trade, and I was thinking a lot about my African ancestry,” says Kim. “I originally applied to a program in Mali, in part because I’d studied French. Someone from SIT called me and said, ‘If you’re interested in the slave trade, consider our Ghana program.’”

She had just learned that Ghana was home to the medieval European-built fortresses where African captives were kept before their voyages across the ocean, so she said, “Can you please switch me right now?” In Ghana, the castle called Elmina resonated particularly with Kim. Slaves faced brutal conditions there, and the women enduring such suffering were often about the same age Kim was when she visited.

“What happened to the women there—it was so traumatic and fascinating,” says Kim. “It became something of an obsession.”

That obsession led her to the idea for the novel she’s now working on. Wanting to do further research for her writing, she applied for and received a Fulbright grant and returned to Ghana in 2002. “SIT’s Independent Study Project model gave me the confidence to apply for something like a Fulbright. If I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t have applied for a Fulbright.”

On the SIT program, Kim had learned a lot about how to do research. SIT’s experience-based model became, for her, literally hands-on. “I will never forget. I was working with a bonesetter. I’m observing. I’m writing in my notebook. The bonesetter asks, ‘What are you doing? Are you watching me?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’m watching you.’ Then he’s like, ‘You—sit. I want you to work on this patient.’

“You can’t get this in the classroom—to be there physically putting your hands on the patient, learning how to do the massage he’s doing. We came back to the community a week later, and I saw the guy I was working on. He said, ‘Hey, you see me?’ He was bouncing around with his ankle I’d worked on. It gave new meaning to getting ‘hands-on’ with the community.”

There was at least one more big surprise for Kim in Africa. “I realized that in Ghana, I wasn’t black. Black is only a skin color there. Ghanaians tend to be very dark. They’d say, ‘You’re not black. You’re nowhere near black!’”

Ghanaians, she says, often called her red. “I also got called white—‘white lady.’ When you grow up in the US, it’s so racialized. Then in Africa, you’re considered a white person for the first time.” That unusual experience also became fodder for writing, which Kim has pursued as a career.

“In my writing, I also emphasize looking at Ghana as a modern society—Africa is so misrepresented. People still think Africans walk around barefoot hunting animals. They don’t always know there’s computers, TVs, satellites. I’m really stressing the urban experience—it’s a different side of Africa.”

The writing Kim began in Ghana became a memoir entitled Sojourner, several excerpts of which she has published as shorter pieces. She credits her time with SIT in Ghana with inspiring that work. It also affected what she studied: she went on to get a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in writing from Chicago State University.

She’s done well as a writer, receiving fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has published fiction, essays, and experimental prose in Black Renaissance Noire, The Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Obsidian, and elsewhere.

After her MFA, Kim knew she didn’t want to teach writing. Once again, SIT came into play. She became a study abroad advisor; she’s now assistant director of global programs for the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University.

What was it about SIT Study Abroad that made such a difference? The Independent Study Project was “a huge component,” says Kim. “There are so many programs where you just sit in a classroom the whole time. You read articles, you discuss, but SIT is actually getting you out in the field.

“I think that homestays are big, too. We had two—one urban, one rural . . . in the community, living with people, engaging with people. SIT’s programs are like living classrooms—you’re learning, but you’re also applying, questioning, and challenging.”

Kim discusses her SIT experience in memoir excerpts “Welcome Home” and “A Question of Tradition.”

To learn more about Kim and read more of her writing, visit http://kimcolemanfoote.com/.

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