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Co-op in African classroom transforms student’s career outlook

Ever since a high school trip to Zambia to repair dormitories, Danielle Fontaine has been searching for a chance to return to Africa. So when she got a co-op with Selam Children’s Village, an orphanage and school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Fontaine just knew she had to go.

“It’s a little hard to explain exactly what made me want to go back to Africa,” said Fontaine, a senior with a combined major in psychology and American Sign Language. “I think I just fell in love with it while I was there.”

Fontaine traveled to Ethiopia last fall with Projects Abroad, a commercial volunteer travel organization that places students in 30 countries worldwide. While in Addis Ababa, Fontaine worked in a kindergarten classroom with 35 four- to eight-year-old children, who taught her just as much as she taught them.

Selam Children’s Village comprises 11 family houses, each with as many as 20 children who are looked after by two female caretakers. The women feed, clothe, and raise the children as if they were their own and all of the kids living in the village are provided with shelter, healthcare, and education.

Through this experience, Fontaine realized these children were similar in many way to those she’s taught back home, despite the physical and cultural boundaries. “I learned that kids are kids wherever you go, whatever language they speak, and whatever their families or circumstances are like,” Fontaine said. “There are just some things that make all kids the same.”

The program immersed her in Ethiopia’s education system, which differs from the U.S. system in just about every way, according to Fontaine. “The teaching methods, activities, and lesson plans are entirely different,” she explained. “I was able to learn new skills, and the experience confirmed for me that I want to be an early childhood teacher.”

Fontaine’s passion for teaching was sparked during her first co-op as a classroom assistant at an elementary school in Newton, Mass. That job taught her how to manage a classroom and gave her confidence to succeed in professional settings.

“Rather than waiting for someone to direct me, I learned to be more self-sufficient and confident in what I was accomplishing,” Fontaine said.

After graduating next fall, she plans to get her master’s degree in early childhood education with the goal of becoming a kindergarten teacher.

“My experiences have made me really excited for my future and I’m excited to move on and use what I have learned at Northeastern in my future career,” she said.