By Michelle Samuels

“I wasn’t learning how to order food from a restaurant,” says Zak Gersten (CAS ’11, MPH ’15). “I was learning how to actually hold a conversation with somebody about some specific area of public health.”

Public health doesn’t often make it onto a language curriculum, unless the class is small, and public health work is why the students are learning the language. That was the case for Zak, who has studied Wolof for five years, at BU and in Senegal, as an undergraduate biology major and as a Master’s in Public Health candidate.

“I always knew health was something I wanted to focus in,” Zak recalls. Over his freshman year he narrowed down to public health in Senegal, and at the beginning of his sophomore year he began learning Wolof, the main language of that country. His teacher was Senegalese anthropologist Fallou Ngom, who had just come on as the African Languages Program director.

Zak stuck with Wolof, and after a few semesters he was in a class of his own. Ngom adjusted the curriculum accordingly, from anatomy vocab to translating public health journal articles. Zak says the full package was extremely valuable, to have “both public health and language and cultural training, and fit those two together and really make yourself accessible to the populations on the ground.”

He also travelled to Dakar for study abroad, and returned on three separate fully funded Department of Education Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships as an undergraduate and graduate student. He honed his Wolof skills in intensive classes, and working with nonprofits (including a vocational education program, where he needed vocabulary to cover everything from hair products to engine parts).

After his undergraduate studies, Zak went on to complete an MPH at the School of Public Health: “I just love BU so much I can’t stay away,” he jokes. Zak is still working on a few projects at both the School of Public Health and the African Studies Center. The latter, he says, is especially a place to stick around, boasting one of the best African Studies programs in the country, an African languages powerhouse with free online language-learning materials for anyone interested. Zak also notes that the public health-centric approach continues: Ghana-bound Sargent College students are now learning “how to communicate different health tips in Akan Twi,” he explains. No place else, says Zak, has anything quite like that.