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Our Malawi Practicum Experience (Part 1)

By Sierra Kochersperger '22, Steven Shamblen '22


After a two year hiatus due to Covid-19 pandemic, this summer, two students, Sierra Kochersperger and Steven Shamblen, traveled to Malawi as part of the Malawi Research Practicum - a nine-week applied research experience for undergraduate students in Chilumba, Malawi with a local development organization Determined to Develop (D2D) in partnership with the Human Rights Center. In this series of posts, we reflect on our time gaining graduate level research and fieldwork experience in the area of local governance in Malawi. 

Our dream experience come true

Sierra: In the spring of 2020, I was accepted into the Malawi Practicum, a ten-week applied research experience for undergraduate students. For me, this was a dream come true. I would be traveling to Chilumba, Malawi in order to gain fieldwork experience, collaborate with D2D and be immersed in what is quite literally the warm heart of Africa. This dream was put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic started pausing most travel everywhere. Our cohort of students was devastated and the pre-immersion course culminated in a Literature Review on our specific topics, instead of a fully fleshed out research report. I was convinced that COVID-19 had ended my dream of participating in the full Practicum.

Fast forward two years. As a second semester senior, I was nervously searching for what the next chapter of my life would look like. Would I complete a year of service? Go directly into the workforce? I had no idea. I knew that the ETHOS center, Engineers in Technical Humanitarian Opportunities of Service Learning, was facilitating an engineering project in-country with D2D to survey land for a new high school in the area. If a group of engineers were traveling to Malawi this summer, what was stopping the Human Rights Center from reinstating the Malawi Practicum? I immediately emailed the Center about my previous involvement with the Practicum in 2020 and an inquiry into joining the Practicum for the summer after my graduation from the University of Dayton. My interest, as well as the interest of Steven Shamblen (also a member of the 2020 cohort) helped influence the resumption of the Malawi Practicum. It was mid-March when my previous cohort was given notice of the re-opening of the Malawi Practicum for 2022 and within 2 months, we were all set to travel. It was happening! Two years delayed, but nevertheless happening.

malawi-stevenSteven: This past semester, I wrapped up my four-year tenure at the University of Dayton. My friends and I spent the semester wondering what the next chapter in our life would be. It was not until halfway through March that I knew what was in store for me. The Human Rights Center’s Malawi Practicum, a ten-week research trip in Malawi, Africa had finally reopened after Covid-19 had caused a two-year hiatus. Originally, I was a part of the 2020 Practicum cohort and had had the unfortunate experience of being told that Covid-19 had canceled the trip. I assumed that the opportunity of a lifetime, one I had spent a semester preparing for, was no longer a possibility. Therefore, when I heard this past March that the trip had reopened, and that they were allowing 2020 cohort members to apply, I was beyond ecstatic. Finally, I would be able to finish what I had started two years ago.

The Malawi Practicum is usually a ten-week research stay with Determined to Develop (D2D), an education-based NGO founded by UD alum Matt Maroon in Malawi, Africa. Specifically, five students spend their time in the Karonga district under the Chilumba catchment area. During the time in-country students work on a research project that is useful for D2D and reflects their needs for further data and information. Working with a Malawian student, as a research partner and translator, students survey and interview local community members to gather data for their projects. While each research project looks different, by the time students leave they have already started writing the reports of their findings. Our research, under the theme of local governance, will explore traditional court systems, still legal in Malawi, and how fair they are to people in light of the norms in the constitution. By interviewing village chiefs, local authorities, and village members, we hope to ascertain how effective traditional justice is being administered and whether it's equitable for women. 

Our trip started with over 36 hours of travel. Flying from Rhode Island to Chicago, and Chicago to Ethiopia (a 14-hour flight), with a final flight from Ethiopia into Malawi, made for a long day. After spending a day in Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital) getting oriented for our next ten-weeks in D2D from Matt Maroon, we embarked on a near 12-hour car ride to the site (Maji Zuwa). Arriving at long last, we took a quick shower, ate a quick dinner, and passed out from the day’s travels. sierra-malawiSierra: Our team has been in Chilumba for two weeks now, conducting interviews, sorting out logistics, and reviewing data. Our project has begun to take shape as we look at the system of local governance in rural Malawi, and how justice changes from village to village and man to woman. These interviews have given us a greater insight into the lives and struggles of the members of this community and it has been eye opening about how governance works in northern Malawi.

Malawi is 174th out of 189 countries and territories in the Human Development Index. This index, published by the United Nations, analyzes life expectancy at birth, mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling, and gross national income per capita in order to measure quality of life within countries. For comparison, the United States ranks 17 out of 189 countries on the HDI.

Access to education services is very limited in Malawi, especially in rural areas like Chilumba. The local Chief informed us in an interview that he sees child labor issues in the community, though theft and land disputes are the most common cases. Because our project is focused on these larger issues, I did not think much of the issue of child labor until I noticed the large amount of kids swimming in Lake Malawi, wandering into the local town of Hara, completing different tasks around their homes. In our free time here at Maji Zuwa, when we are not conducting interviews or organizing data, we often cool off in the lake. And when we do, around 15 local children wander over and swim with us or watch us from the rocks. This was taking place in the middle of the day, when school is typically in session. 

In a world where education is essential to the growth and success of individuals, Malawi lacks the infrastructure to support its population of youth (people under 25) which encompasses two thirds of the total population. Child labor contributes to low academic enrollment and educational outcomes because parents prioritize income generating activities for their children over schooling. Coming from one of the wealthiest countries, where education is free and required up until high school, and where I had the access and support to become college educated, it is hard for me to see so many children be left behind in terms of educational opportunities. I am sure that many of these kids who we see every week, swimming and laughing, and helping their parents catch fish, have brilliant minds. While D2D is working on building schools in the area, until Malawi's educational infrastructure and enforcement changes, these kids will not have the same access to quality education as other Malawians. These kids will also continue to help their families generate an income, in order to survive. 

Seeing this has been part of the culture shock that I have experienced. From a human rights perspective, it is hard to see so many children lacking access to quality education. Although this problem is so overwhelming, I am glad that D2D is working to chip away at it.


Sierra Kochersperger graduated from UD May '22. She was an INS student with a concentration in international education and minors in Africana Studies and Women and Gender Studies. After her time in Malawi she will be returning to work for a local nonprofit here in Dayton, OH. 

Steven Shamblen graduated from UD in May '22. He was an INS student with a concentration in global peace and security along with minors in Spanish, political science, and human rights. He is from Saunderstown, Rhode Island with an older brother and a younger sister. Steven has been fortunate enough to study abroad in Xela Guatemala, and spent time working with an orphanage in Belize. After the Malawi practicum, he hopes to find a job where he will be able to get out and see even more of the world!

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Our Malawi Practicum Experience (Part 2)

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