Spotlight on...Zoey Nell '24, Bridge Year Senegal

The Novogratz Bridge Year Program's "Spotlight on..." series features unique stories from our current Bridge Year participants. Students will share a short story about an aspect of their Bridge Year experience that they have found particularly meaningful. In this spotlight, Zoey Nell '24 reflects on language learning, her Independent Enrichment Activity, and finding a balance during her first few months in Senegal.

“What’s your problem anyway, Mom?” 

This question left my mom at a loss of words 17 years ago when my toddler-self said it to her after two years of nearly never speaking. Unlike most children, I didn’t start speaking until after my second birthday and when I did, it was primarily in complete sentences. It wasn’t a lack of vocabulary or understanding that attributed to my delayed speech, but rather a desire to know how to say what I wanted to say in a  coherent way. Nineteen years later, this has not changed. 

I still find myself feeling anxious when I have to speak in broken sentences and phrases, which is exactly what I have to do in order to communicate with the people around me here in Senegal. Due to this discomfort, after arriving in Dakar I felt like I needed to spend every spare moment studying French or Wolof so that I could start speaking in complete sentences. However, having never really learned a language before, I did not progress in either language as quickly as I would have liked, despite how much time I spent reading French textbooks or going over my Wolof notes at night. 

My inability to speak in complete sentences started to stress me out and that stress did not allow me to feel any sense of accomplishment in the substantial progress I was making. I found myself dreading language class and the interactions I would have throughout the day in Wolof and French because no matter how much I wanted it, I did not have enough knowledge of either language to speak in the way I wanted to. It didn’t take long for me to begin filling all of my time with unproductive activities to avoid facing my language difficulties.

Photo of Zoey Nell (center) and Bridge Year cohort

After a couple of weeks, I started to realize that by neglecting my language studies I was also allowing myself to neglect many of the other reasons I am here in Senegal. I wasn’t spending as much time with my family. I wasn’t journaling, reading, writing, or making any effort to take advantage of the opportunities living in Dakar offers me. This realization came to me around two weeks ago and weighed heavily on me for a few days before I worked up the energy to do something about it.

I decided to focus on minimizing activities that had little or no benefit, rather than jumping back into language. I cut down on the time I spent watching shows or doing nothing at the Program House, and started making progress in a book I’d been drudging through for weeks. I started spending more time with my home-stay mom before language class, and I finally started my Independent Enrichment Activity (IEA).

I had decided weeks before to do pottery as my IEA at a place called Association Colombin, which was created by a man named Ibrahima to provide vocational and art training to people who are hard of hearing; unable to speak, or who have physical disabilities that make it difficult to find a job.  Association Colombin offers pottery and ceramics lessons to people as a way to bring income into the organization.  So, last Sunday I called a taxi, bartered the price down until it was acceptable, and made my way there. Upon arriving, Ibrahima introduced me to the people in the room and asked me what I wanted to make. I looked around the room and at all of the sculptures and vases and decided I wanted to sculpt an elephant, my third favorite animal. 

Ibrahima then introduced me to Asshan, a young man who is unable to speak and who would be my teacher for the day.

I spent the next two hours seated across from Asshan as he walked me through how to make an elephant. I had never worked with clay before and was amazed at how he flawlessly manipulated it into doing what he wanted. He showed me how to create the shapes needed to start the elephant, how to use the table to work out imperfections in the clay, and how to hollow out the elephant at the end in order to save clay. There was no stress, no expectation to be good at what I was doing, and no expectation to speak which allowed me to loosen up and focus on my hands in the clay and what I was creating. When my elephant was complete and it was time to go home, I found that I was excited to come back again the next weekend.

As I made my way home I found that I was in a much better mood than usual. The time I spent with Asshan, communicating through nothing but facial expressions and hand motions had been some of the happiest moments I’d had in days. I found myself telling the man next to me on my bus home as much as I could with my broken Wolof and French and he listened, smiling and then introduced me to the man sitting behind us, saying that he too was an artist. I tried to explain to the other man that I was not an artist and that it was my first lesson, and the man said to me in English, “It doesn’t matter how good. You make art, you are an artist.”

Photo of Zoey Nell (second from right) and Bridge Year cohort

Although he was speaking specifically about art, I walked home thinking about how what he said related to me learning French and Wolof. I thought about how it really doesn’t matter whether I speak in complete sentences, or with perfect grammar, as long as I am speaking. That was nearly a week ago, and although I still feel somewhat uncomfortable while speaking, I find that the relationships I am building are worth feeling a bit uncomfortable sometimes. 

Yesterday, my cohort and I had a session with a woman named Christy, who along with Babacar, was instrumental in the development of the Bridge Year Senegal program. The session was on International Development, and toward the end, she said, “The most I can offer the world is to be the best person I can be, and to live an intentional life.” I’m working on living a more intentional life here in Senegal, and I’ve made some good first steps. Right now I am working on finding balance. Finding balance with what I eat, how I spend my time, and what my priorities are. I’m only at the beginning of this journey, and perhaps starting a little late, but starting, nonetheless. I’m living a more intentional life, one small step at a time.

Zoey Nell '24, Bridge Year Senegal