Many college students study abroad to learn a language or a different culture.

For three years, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has been taking students to Ghana in the summer to learn about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and themselves.

Lehigh graduate student Miles Davis is originally from Baltimore County, Maryland, near where Freddie Gray's death sparked national protests about police violence against black men.

One of the first things the 22-year-old said about studying in Ghana, in West Africa, is how as a black man, he felt safer there.

"I think the love was one of the most exciting things and one of the most empowering things about it," the environmental policy design major said. "It's just everywhere I went I felt safe. I felt like people were not going to do me harm. I felt, you know, the love from people ... So that was one of the biggest things everywhere I went," said Davis. 

Last summer, the second time Davis went, it was a few days after more police shootings occurred in the U.S. 

"When I go to Ghana, it's really like a sigh of relief," he said. "I was so excited to go to Ghana this time because it was a couple of days after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed. And so it was really just like, wow, I can be around my people and feel safe."

miles with friendLehigh graduate student Miles Davis (right) in Ghana during summer 2016. (Courtesy of Miles Davis)

He said even after returning, looking at photos and videos he took there helped him hold on to that feeling of safety.

The trip, organized by James Peterson, the director of the Africana studies program at Lehigh, was pivotal even for students with no ancestral ties to Africa. Peterson, who does WHYY's "The Remix" podcast, has been taking students to Ghana for three summers.

Senior Sidney Ro came to Lehigh University to get far away from her family in Los Angeles and her Korean heritage — but the Ghana trip helped her come full circle.

"I had intentionally left California because I wanted to get away from my parents and get away from conservative Korean people," the 21-year-old said. "I came here, and I kind of experienced the same thing where I felt a little out of place and kind of just like confused about what I wanted to do and my passions and things like that.

"So going there ... gave me the opportunity to really think about I guess what's important to me as an individual."

Seeing other students make a connection with the historical slave sites made Ro want to connect more deeply to her own history.

sidney ro with cannonSidney Ro visits a slave castle during summer 2016. (Miles Davis)

A double major in English and Africana studies, Ro is applying to graduate schools and her two Ghana trips helped her find her own focus, even though it wasn't clear at first.

"I remember very vividly Miles taking his shoes off to walk on the floor and like actually physically be closer to maybe people that he had been like descended from," she said. "I was a bit envious of that kind of experience because I am a Korean-American. I don't really have much connection to that history."

Now Ro is focusing on her family history and Korean heritage — the very thing she had avoided.

"So now I'm kind of exploring my own roots, I guess you could say," she said. "I'm even interviewing both of my grandmothers who had escaped from North Korea to learn about like their story and how it relates to moving here."

Ro plans to focus on Asian-American literature in graduate school.

Senior Karen Valerio is from Newark, New Jersey, and her family's originally from the Dominican Republic.

The 22-year-old visited Ghana twice.

miles karen sydney and katerinaLehigh students Miles Davis, Sidney Ro, Karen Valerio and Katerina Traut in Ghana in summer 2015. (Courtesy of Karen Valerio)

Valerio, an Africana studies major and Latin American studies minor, was able to connect the trip with her identity.

"My Africana studies concentration is Afro-Latinx studies or Afro-Latino studies," she said. "As someone who identifies Afro-Latina because of her Dominican heritage, it was amazing to be able to visit the mother continent ... and recognizing that parts of my family come from Africa as well, and so it was a very personal experience in that sense."

Ghana has approximately 40 percent of the historic slave castles that were used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  From the 17th to 19th century, it's estimated 12 million men, women and children were held captive in the dozens of structures along Ghana's coast — until they were shipped away to be sold in the New World.

Valerio wrote a blog post after visiting Cape Coast Castle.

"The guide brings our attention to the floor," she wrote. "This floor hasn't been excavated. We stand on all the slaves left behind: feces, urine, vomit, blood. I start to cry. A mix of emotions surge through me: rage, despair, resentment, sadness, a sense of inadequacy in not being able to change history."

cape coast slave castleStudents tour Cape Coast Slave Castle during summer 2016. (Miles Davis)

While the visits to the castles were emotional, the group received a surprise while waiting to see Elmina Slave Castle.

"We're waiting and a group of more than 40 toddlers come in, school-age children, no more than 5 years old with pink backpacks on," said Davis. "They were just laughing and they were calling us foreigners, Obroni, that's a name for foreigners."

The schoolchildren were on a field trip to the castle.

"It was just such a shock to all of us that this place that had been so dark and had done so many bad things to people was now filled with these like laughing children who I guess really didn't have any idea what that place meant," said Ro. "Afterwards we were all sitting, and a lot of them are kind of just like crawling all over us and like trying to say hi."

children at slave castleSchool children visit Elmina Slave Castle in summer 2015. (Miles Davis)

Davis said seeing the children changed the dynamic of the visit to the slave castle.

"They were so excited to see us, and they came over and gave us hugs. They said, 'How are you?' You know, trying to utilize their English," said Davis. "They really lightened the mood for us. They made us feel 10 times better and the experience was different because of that."

Since returning, Sidney Ro has presented what she learned in Ghana at two conferences.

Discovering roots

"Sankofa" is the West African notion of returning to your roots, looking to your past in order to move forward — something all three students ended up embracing as part of their Ghana experience.

Davis says his family is originally from Cameroon.

"As a black man, I feel it it's very important to go back to your roots," he said. "That's what I was doing. I wanted to go to West Africa because I knew that was like the birthplace of African-American history."

Although sankofa is a West African tradition, Ro says she felt it was applicable to everyone.

"I kind of really connected with that," Ro said. "I'm kind of going in this a big circle of leaving home, but now I'm kind of going back ... Miles and Karen really had that amazing experience, and I was really jealous to see that.

"But now that I have my own opportunity and the opportunity to go and realize my wishes for this I think was the biggest takeaway."

view of elminaView of Elmina from Elmina Slave Castle during summer 2015. (Miles Davis)

Valerio also embodied the concept with her research on the Tabom people, Afro-Brazilian descendants of freed slaves from Brazil, and got a tattoo of the sankofa symbol.

School officials say they are trying to establish a collaboration with the Lehigh Valley system, a college  consortium, so those students would be eligible for the Ghana study abroad program.

The program's next step would be to expand to cover other stops in the historic slave trade, such as Cuba, as well as related sites in the U.S.

This immersive study abroad experience is made possible through a gift from Lehigh Alum, Ron Ulrich, who provided support for four Lehigh undergraduates to travel to Ghana over each of the next four years. Additional funding support for Lehigh students to experience the history and culture of Ghana is provided by various donors, including Trevor Bond, Dale Strohl and John Franchini, as well as the Lee Iaccoca International Internship Program at Lehigh University.

This is part one in a series on Lehigh's study abroad program. You can find the second part here.