Comm Lead student Kirsten O’Brien takes independent study to Ghana

Kirsten O'Brien at Salt flats

Kirsten (right) and her roommate Yasamin Mohsenian at the Songhor Lagoon salt fields in the Ada region of Ghana.

When Communication Leadership student Kirsten O’Brien’s class about how global technologies function in developing countries was cancelled last winter, she took matters into her own hands to learn more about the subject. She worked with iSchool Professor Araba Sey, who is a native of Ghana, to create an independent study and later joined Sey and 17 other students on a month-long Exploration Seminar during the summer.

During the research phase, O’Brien found a collaborative youth brand developed by three non-governmental organizations in Ghana called NoYawa. NoYawa, meaning ‘no worries’, is a comprehensive sexual education platform distributed via mobile phones, social media, and a hotline – it is a place for young adults to find answers about sexual health-related topics and provides resources and access to sexual health services.

“My research specifically was looking at community perceptions and attitudes of the young people who would sign up for the service,” O’Brien said. “For instance, a lot of times I would find that a family shares a mobile phone, so what happens when their mom or dad finds the phone with the text message. What do parents think about their child accessing this information? What do community and religious leaders think?”

Looking at cultural perceptions of sex and how the program fits in with everyday life was important for fulfilling the ideal goal of being able to make recommendations to the implementing organizations to potentially help improve the program.

“When I was researching, I got the sense that the services were everywhere and that everyone has a mobile phone, but there were times where we would go into these very rural communities and that just wasn’t the case,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien found that those who lived in rural villages maybe had a cell phone, but didn’t have access to power so their device was always dead. Or she noticed how strong radio communication is because many are illiterate, which doesn’t coincide well with a text-based service. Also, cost proved to be a considerable barrier for people like subsistence farmers who only grow enough food to live and don’t have extra money to buy birth control or condoms.

Daily life in Ghana

A snapshot of daily life in Accra, Ghana

“Although the organizations were forthcoming about their challenges, it is so much better to go and see problems firsthand, instead of making assumptions based on a small summary on a website or reading about the topic in a research paper,” O’Brien said. “You are constantly encountering new situations, you’re in a culture that is not your own, everything is unfamiliar – I think there is something really valuable in being the ‘outsider’ that creates a powerful learning experience.”

O’Brien has previously worked in Iceland for three months and visited Sweden, which were great experiences, but she said visiting a place like West Africa was much different.

“You have to be flexible and be willing to roll with the punches because it is an unpredictable landscape,” she said. “One day you’ll have no Wi-Fi when trying to send emails, the next day the power will go out because the government mismanaged the power grid and there’s no way to charge your devices – all these problems arise that you’ve never had to deal with before in the States where everything just works.”

When it comes to travelling, O’Brien encourages students to explore their options and make it happen, and to use your status as a student to collect tangible experiences that you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.

“It’s not necessarily about the degree [you’re earning], it’s about the experiences you have while getting the degree,” she said. “I look at the Comm Lead program as a way to open doors to me that wouldn’t otherwise be open if I wasn’t in school.”

If you are a Comm Lead student who is interested in creating an independent study, please refer to the Comm Lead Student Handbook for the guidelines and necessary forms. Students can also set up an appointment with Anita Verna Crofts at to discuss ideas. Finally, remember that Exploration Seminars are open to all students.