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#VolsAbroad Spotlight: Africana Studies Graduate Shares the Importance of Identity

 by Albrianna Jenkins

Kwanbe Bullard Jr., Class of 2022

Recent UT graduate and Knoxville native, Kwanbe Bullard Jr., is using his education and abroad experience from his time at The University of Tennessee to create a community where identity is valued, explored and understood.

To Bullard, identity is important because it shapes a person’s worldview. “We are who we are,” says Bullard, who self-identifies as a Black man, a Christian and a southerner. This past summer, in his final time at UT, Bullard chose to elevate his Volunteer experience with something more – an experience abroad to Ghana, Africa.

“I wanted to see [history] with my own eyes instead of seeing it on the Internet and in the books,” says Bullard. The UTK in Ghana summer program abroad, led by Dr. Amadou Sall, is one of many short-term, faculty-directed programs available for UT students to gain an international perspective while working towards their undergraduate degree.

Bullard shares that one of the experiences that resonated with him the most was the class visit to Elmina Castle. “That’s where the enslaved Africans were placed before they were shipped off to the New World,” explains Bullard. “Just listening to the tour guide and learning the history, being able to see the no return door- of how small the door was, and you’re losing your identity- who you are.”

From the conversation, Bullard grows somber. “That was a really big shocker. Just being in a room where enslaved Africans were,” Bullard admits as he describes the sights and smells of the stone dungeons of Elmina Castle.”

Bullard with UTK in Ghana classmate, Avie Owensby

Culture Shock and Service-Learning in Ghana

This was among many of the resonating experiences Bullard and his classmates came away with. With previous classmate and Global Studies major, Avie Owensby, Bullard compares the culture of Ghana to that of the United States.

One thing that really shocked me,” shares Owensby, “was the market and bargaining culture, because here, we can just go to the store…They all go to the markets and get anything you can think of really or just on the streets with the ladies with the baskets…I thought that was crazy.” Bullard agrees, chiming in, “It’s like their mom, the dad, the granny, the granddaddy, down to the little kids and they’re all working…Here in the U.S. you don’t hardly see that.”

The two continue reflecting on their experiences, sharing moments of culture shock and surprise, memories of bustling city markets and an impactful service learning project at Hopeway Orphanage.

“I enjoyed it,” says Bullard. “Building a relationship with the kids. Just being able to take pictures with them with the Polaroid camera.” Owensby, too, shares her experience. “It was really fun to… interact. Like, my girl that I was paired with was Blessing. Blessing was sweet.”

Owensby then reflects on a time when the group had to be flexible in their travel plans. “I really wanted to go on the Kakum National Park canopy walk,” says Owensby, “but because of the rainy season, the floods kind of made it hard to get there. So, we didn’t do it, but we got to go on the little one.” Bullard admits, “I was nervous about [it]. So, it was my first time being on a canopy walk and just being off the ground.”

Kwanbe Bullard Jr.: A Trailblazer, A Change-Maker, A Volunteer

The canopy walk was not the only “first” for Bullard. The international experience was Bullard’s first time leaving the country, and as a first generation college student, Bullard also navigated new terrain at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“I attended a local community college before transferring to UT in the fall of 2020,” says Bullard. “This is home,” he adds with a smile. Moments later, The Pride of the Southland Band is heard playing in the distance, and Bullard sings along. “Good Ole Rocky Top. Whoo! Rocky Top, Tennessee,” he sings before breaking into a laugh.

When asked what drew him to UT and what barriers he faced, Bullard’s answer for both was the same: finances. Without financial assistance, Bullard admits that he would not have had the same educational opportunities nor the experiences. As a recipient of the Latasia and Donnell Priest Study Abroad Scholarship, Bullard was able to participate in the UTK in Ghana program without having to overcome the financial barrier.

“I am so thankful to the Priest family. Because of their generosity, I was able to have my first, and hopefully not last, international experience. The UTK in Ghana program was so impactful because I couldn’t have learned the same things or really understood them just by reading it in a book,” says Bullard.

Now, Bullard is able to draw upon his education and international experience from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville as he works in the community to educate the public and address issues of civil rights.

Finding Identity in Community

Among the many components of his identity, Bullard lists “community activist.” Since his senior year at Austin-East Magnet High School, Bullard has served in both a volunteer and staff capacity at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center (Beck Center). With free admission to the public and home to over 50,000 artifacts, the Beck Center is the only organization in the region dedicated to local and regional African American history.

Now, Bullard uses his platform at the Beck Center to show that knowing one’s own identity helps to recognize and appreciate our unique differences. ”I’m very passionate about Black history,” says Bullard, “and so I wanted to learn more so I can teach… and show Black history since it’s not being taught as much in schools.” This is why Bullard chose to major in Africana Studies at UT.

Africana Studies has been a program for over 50 years at the University of Tennessee, and recently, the program developed into its own department. “I can see that great work is being done at the University of Tennessee for minority students and creating spaces for them,” said Bullard of this achievement.

Kwanbe Bullard Jr. was recently named the Africana Studies Outstanding Graduate of 2022. Bullard shares that he could not have done it alone. “My teachers, my community, myself and my family impacted me,” says Bullard. As students like Kwanbe Bullard Jr. use their platform to create tangible change in the community and throughout the world, the Center for Global Engagement challenges each Volunteer – current and graduated, student and staff person – to answer for themselves the question of what it means to be a global citizen and steward of the Volunteer spirit.

For more information on UT’s Global vision and CGE’s efforts to support this mission, visit https://cge.utk.edu/global-vision/ or contact the Center for Global Engagement at 865-974-3177. To learn more about faculty-directed program options or other opportunities to go abroad, visit programsabroad.utk.edu or contact Programs Abroad at 865-974-3177 or volsabroad@utk.edu.

To hear more about the experiences of Africana Studies graduate, Kwanbe Bullard, and Global Studies major, Avie Owensby, please visit: https://youtu.be/ruBolSERctg

CONTACT:

Albrianna Jenkins (865-974-3177, ajenki58@utk.edu)