Kara Willmer: Accra, Ghana; Summer 2011
This photo was taken the summer of 2011 at Ada Beach. We made friends with the kids at the beach and taught them how to use cameras.
Lianne Barnes; Bangalore, India; Fall 2011
This photo captures me coloring with school children at a rural school near Bangalore, India
Allison Conkey; Osaka, Japan; Year 2008-2009.
Learning how to wash rice while camping. (Ai Setoguchi and Allison Conkey)
There are many wonders associated with Ada Beach in Ghana, where the coconut palms have a pleasing, almost drowsy lean to them. A nearby estuary is sanctuary to a number of different species of birds; the waters are breeding grounds for sea turtles.
Kara Willmer and some of her fellow classmates who were studying in Accra, Ghana, as part of the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC), visited Ada Beach during the summer of 2011.
They were expecting to experience some of the beach's physical beauty.
What Willmer found, however, was something more. It was captured in a photograph. And more than a year later, whenever Willmer looks at the photograph and remembers her day on Ada Beach, surrounded by the world's greatest wonder of all - the joyous curiosity of children - she can't help but smile.
"Every time I look back at this photo," she said recently, "it just makes me smile and remember how much I miss Ghana."
Willmer's photo, of herself and two Ghanese children sitting together at Ada Beach, was chosen in mid-October as the first-place winner in USAC's photo contest launched this summer to commemorate the program's 30th anniversary.
The photo has all of the ingredients of a memorable moment.
Willmer, a senior social work major from Reno, sits on the beach, seemingly balancing two children in both hands. One of the children's arms is loosely draped around Willmer's neck, looking as relaxed as a long-lost friend. The second child sits practically on Willmer's lap, the way a child seeks the comfort of a mother's touch.
The children didn't speak English. Yet through a series of gestures, Willmer and the other USAC students were able to teach the children how to use the cameras which would eventually capture their day at the beach.
"This was the first time the children had seen cameras and had tried using them," Willmer remembered. "The children absolutely loved learning how to use them on the beach and we started taking pictures of everything.
"We didn't know the children at all ... we just started playing around with them on the beach and shortly after we were teaching them how to use our cameras."
Any cultural trepidation about appearing in a photo was non-existent, Willmer said.
"It was not hard to convince the children to pose with me because they actually loved taking pictures with all of us," she said.
In the flurry of photos and laughs, Willmer said it's hard to remember who actually snapped the winning photo.
"I don't remember who took this photo," she said. "It could have been one of the children or a fellow student. I didn't know it was going to be such a good photo until later that night when I was looking through my photos.
"I fell in love with this one."
The experience on Ada Beach has stayed with Willmer ever since. It's an example of the contrasts between two cultures when one travels to a foreign land. These days, it seems almost every American has a camera phone, or a disposable camera, or some sort of hand-held gizmo to pictorially capture every waking moment of their life.
In Ghana, such self-aware reflection is not nearly as self-evident.
"This experience in a foreign country humbled me as a person," Willmer explained. "Something that is so natural to us ... for example, using cameras ... can be such a foreign object to another country. Just being able to teach the children how to use cameras for the first time was so rewarding.
"The looks on their faces when they could instantly see the photos they took and pictures of themselves was priceless."
The children on the beach weren't alone in their wonder.
"One of the children took the camera over to her parents and they were fascinated by it," Willmer said. "They started playing around with it and while they were doing so, they had a huge smile on their faces, too."
Not surprisingly, Willmer, once she graduates in May, hopes to teach English abroad and, as she enthusiastically put it, "travel the world!" She also has plans to become a social worker, and one day pursue a master's degree in the field.
When asked why she feels traveling and studying abroad add to the college experience, Willmer didn't hesitate.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be able to experience another culture and to also go to another university other than in the United States," she said. "There is so much one can learn getting out of their comfort zone. You will be surrounded by a bunch of people you have never met, from all walks of life that may become your best friends by the end of your journey.
"I still have friends I talk to, to this day, both in Ghana and other fellow USAC students I met abroad. You will come back a changed person and have a better understanding of how diverse our world is ... and isn't that great?"
When she submitted the photo for the USAC contest, Willmer didn't expect to win. When informed she won, Willmer admitted she was "shocked."
"I actually forgot I entered the contest and had to ask USAC what photo I submitted since I have so many great photos from my time in Ghana," she said.
It was a happy moment, one where a group of children learned how to use cameras for the first time in their lives, and Willmer learned from the children that wonder, even when beautifully captured in a snap, is something that never fades with the passage of time.
The top three finishers in the USAC 30th anniversary photo contest: