Shan Sappleton explained that in her native Jamaica, and in much of the Caribbean, children are taught about their heritage early on. “There’s a lot of emphasis on recognizing your background, what your ancestors fought for. When we complain, you are quickly reminded about what your ancestors had to do. ‘Do you know how many miles your great-great grandmother had to walk just to fetch water?’ That constant reference to being proud of your background, especially Africa, and the fact that our ancestors rose beyond their circumstances to make the next generation better.” For Shan and many others, these early lessons helped create a special bond with Africa. But for Shan, it also helped determine her future research agenda.
Her connection to family and history runs deep, though she says that this is also very much a part of Jamaican culture. After finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of the West Indies, Shan initially planned to attend graduate school in the UK along with many of her classmates. Yet her younger brother, a talented runner who trained with the world-renowned Jamaican national team, was interested in studying in the United States. Together they applied to various universities, and together they chose a public university in the middle of the country. This was a decision that not only brought her to the United States, but also resulted in her first experience with snow, which she still chuckles about today.
It wasn’t until it was time to conduct her dissertation research that she finally had the opportunity to live out a life-long dream. The year she spent conducting fieldwork on informal political parties in Senegal and Côte D'Ivoire was also a personal pilgrimage. Knowing little about her lineage, but knowing through DNA analysis that her family came from West Africa, a visit to the Door of No Return, part of the House of Slaves Museum and Memorial located on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, was a particularly poignant moment. This was the final exit for African slaves forced into the Atlantic trade. Shan recalled, “I’m standing there wondering which of my spiritual ancestors was I meeting? Who was welcoming me home? It was just really surreal knowing that this was the first time anyone from my family had actually returned. And to also wonder if this is where they were from and what that experience crossing the Atlantic must have been like? What were their lives really like and how did they survive?” These feelings were overwhelming, Shan admitted, but cathartic as well.
The experience of living and conducting research in two African countries was eye opening. Having arrived with a certain set of assumptions, Shan said her perceptions of these two countries were completely altered during her time there. In fact, she said she was forever changed. Her experience in Senegal was especially memorable. “I fit in. I could observe. I dressed like them and it wasn’t until I opened my mouth that anyone realized I wasn’t Senegalese,” She said. “I spoke in French and learned Wolof [a local language] as much as I could, and that only enhanced my connection to those I met.”
After her transformative experience in Africa and a successful dissertation defense, Shan taught at a university in Maryland for a short time before accepting a tenure-tack position in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville (where it snows a lot!). Teaching courses primarily on comparative and African politics, Shan smiled when she references her students. “I like my university, and I like my students a lot – they work hard,” she said in admiration. But, Shan also works in a rather unique environment for a Social Scientist. Many of the students at this UW branch, especially in her general education courses, are Engineering and Agricultural Science students (read white men) from rural areas. Shan admits that “It can be tough for a black woman under 5’6” to get much respect in the classroom anywhere.” Yet, Shan explained that this makes her role even more important – she has an opportunity to expose students to political, racial and gender issues they might not have otherwise explored. This attitude is reflected in how Shan interacts with her students. She recalled a recent visit with a student during office hours. The student suddenly exclaimed, “oh my god, I just got it!” Shan reminisced with joy remembering how excited the student was. “It was so satisfying, I just packed my bag and was like, ‘I’m done for the day!’” Moments like this – when a student finally gets it – are what keep Shan enthusiastic about her job.
Even though her life is quite hectic and her schedule is full, Shan remains committed to her students, her university, and to publishing her research. Although time and resources are in short supply, she aims to return to Africa in summer 2017 to update her dissertation research and turn her work into a book. From Jamaica, to the United States, to Africa, and eventually to Wisconsin, Shan has experienced a great deal and she is eager to share what she has learned with her colleagues and students.