Penn State student takes a leap of faith in the world of engagement

Junior Daniel Zahn recently traveled to West Africa to research linguistics

Penn State student Daniel Zahn shown with two of the students he worked with, Elsie (left) and Joseph (right), in Benin, West Africa, in 2019. Credit: Penn State / Used with permissionAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Daniel Zahn has been a busy guy during his past three years at Penn State. With three majors in English, philosophy, and communications arts and sciences, as well as two minors in linguistics and French, he has still managed to become heavily involved in other activities. Most recently, Daniel took a leap of faith and traveled all the way to Benin in West Africa where he researched linguistics.

In an interview with Taylor Graham, a Student Engagement Network intern, Zahn talked about his experience abroad and how the engagement opportunity affected him.

Q: What has your experience at Penn State been like so far?
Zahn: I’m from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and I’m currently a junior. I came to Penn State because I felt like I didn’t have to compromise anything I wanted to do when I got here. I was able to pursue every interest I had. I’m the president of the Mock Trial Association. I’m involved in student government, Schreyer recruitment clubs, and I also volunteer with the Office of Student Conduct. I’ve conducted research here, done internships, and gone abroad. I have really tried to take advantage of everything Penn State has to offer.

Q: What got you interested in the opportunity to go abroad to West Africa?
Zahn: I got an email from someone about an embedded course who thought I would be interested. I definitely was. I had done linguistics research before for about a year, so I already had somewhat of a basis on what linguistics research looks like. However, I really wanted that ability to go see what language looks like not in the America context. A country like Benin is so interesting because it’s so linguistically diverse.

I went in May of 2018 and stayed for about 16 days. There were seven undergraduate students and two professors. It was such a great experience. We were all coming at it from different backgrounds. I was a linguistics minor. Other people were African studies majors or minors, so they were interested in that aspect of it. Other people were simply interested in linguistics, but weren’t really pursuing it to a greater degree. Overall, we had a really nice mix of different perspectives coming in.

Q: With everyone having different backgrounds, what would you say was the overall objective of the trip
Zahn: I think the objective was in part to conduct this small-scale research project, but really getting to see the human side of what you’re studying. When you’re in the classroom, it’s all about theory and you’re reading these papers and learning these terms, and maybe you’re building something, but seeing that human side of how you actually collect that research is important. You get to see that language used in Africa, rather than just learn about it. You get to have that engagement and interaction with other people.

Q: What did you spend your time doing in order to gain experience in linguistics?
Zahn: In the morning, we would usually be filming. There were two German professionals that have lived there for nine years — Martin and Stephanie. They were working on documenting the language there that is only found in Bassila, Benin. It has some relative languages, but not too close, so it’s very unique and there hasn’t been much research and documentation on it. They’re ultimately trying to document and film cultural aspects of the language, in the language, so it can be preserved. They have a YouTube channel and helped make some of the first videos for it.

We also worked with students. They were still in school, so when they got out of school, we would spend time with them. I was with two kids named Joseph and Elsie. They took us on a tour of their village, we visited farms, a water resource center, and we’d have cultural exchanges.

Q: Looking back, was the trip what you expected or hoped it to be?
Zahn: We had done extra sessions with our professors to try and prepare for the trip, but nothing can prepare you to actually be there in the environment and see the linguistic diversity firsthand. Many kids speak at least four languages a day. One for your friends, one for your teacher, one for your parents. In America, you can hear about it and you can think about it, but then actually seeing that experience is something that you can’t really fathom.

I really love this concept of language as empowerment and looking at how groups and laws and political institutions use language to either empower or diminish certain groups. It’s interesting to hear the power dynamics of language, having that cross-cultural exchange, and ultimately have that ability to connect to people — even though we’re living such different lives. I feel like that’s going to be something I use in my career no matter what I do. The ability to connect to someone from a different background is really important.

Q: Why do you think engagement like this is so important for students and their personal and professional growth?
Zahn: It really is the time to seize your moment. When you’re in college, you have all of these opportunities and resources. You’re not always going to have a month to just go to another country. You’re not always going to have the support and structure that Penn State is willing to offer.

It’s important to realize that engagement starts now and you have to cultivate that in yourself, whether it’s getting an internship, becoming a part of an organization, doing research, or going abroad. You really need to realize that now is the moment when you have to start because now is when it’s easiest. 

About the Student Engagement Network

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The Student Engagement Network is a joint initiative between Undergraduate EducationStudent Affairs and Outreach and Online Education. The network's mission is to advance the power of participation by connecting students with experiences that empower them to make a positive impact and become leaders of the world.

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Last Updated July 18, 2019