When I first started this blog, it was just as I had been approved for this semester. I didn’t start following other study abroad students until January. I was packing and getting ready to leave and so was this vast community of people. I could go through the WordPress Reader with the tag study abroad and see other people who were struggling with how to pack 6 months into one or two suitcases. As the transition actually happened, we got onto planes so excited for our adventures. Lots of posts of “Yay! I’m SO excited!” As my cohort made our way to South Africa we met other students in the airports and on our planes who were headed off for the semester too. It feels like you are part of a community. The sense of community is growing smaller by the day because the programs all finish at various times. Many students go back for the end of the semester at their home university and so I’m reading blog posts of them leaving. We don’t leave South Africa until the end of June. I’m happy to be here the whole time, I truly wish I could be here the entire year! I have another transition waiting for me back in the States. A move, a new school and new challenges. While it was so fun to be apart of the blog community at the beginning, I find myself guarding against reading too many of the study abroad posts written by students who are leaving and heading home. I don’t want to mentally feel separated from my program until I have to. I plan on keeping this blog going as I move to Washington, D.C. and transition it to thoughts about my experience there and teaching. I hope some of the other bloggers I have grown acustome to reading will keep their blogs going as well. It is a nice community.
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Magic can happen in the classroom, a tutoring session, or meeting with a colleuge in their office. You have to embrace it. Let there be space enough for it to happen and lastly, you have to let go of your agenda so it has space to flourish.
Today, I popped up to someone’s office for a few minutes so we could discuss questions that I had after the workshop. I mentioned my idea of turning students’ perceived negatives into a positive. There was a lot of discussion at the workshop about how the students are not ready for university level education. The lecturers talked about how students use electronic devises in the classroom and how disruptive it can be to them as they try to teach. It seems this topic of discussion comes up quite a bit no matter which country I’m in. They started talking about how students multitask in their personal time or time away from the classroom. The conversation then took a sharp and predictable turn to “but they’re multitasking poorly.” So, this morning in our conversation I mentioned to the woman conducting these workshops, that multitasking is exactly what lectures expect from students, they just don’t want them using electronic devises to do it. For example, if a student is taking notes they are multitasking. The student has to listen to the instructor, process the information, and then translate it into notes on their paper. In order for the student to take notes well they have to listen, process, and write almost simultaneously. My real point was basically, like with employees, when training (teaching) you have to meet students where they are and then go from there.
I had a few more questions for her about South Africa’s higher education system, as a whole. It is a completely different system than I’m used to in the United States. The only instructors who get courses on pedagogy are in the education faculty (department). Other faculties (departments) assume teaching is common sense, everyone can do it. I was a bit surprised by this way of thinking but at the same time, not totally surprised. If this meeting had happened back in February, I would have been blown away. However, having been here this long and worked with as many students as I have, I had already picked up on this attitude. This attitude reflects in their teaching practices as well because in the workshop they mentioned several times not wanting to “spoon-feed” students. I know I mentioned that in the previous posting on this workshop but it really made an impression on me!
We went on to discuss the biggest debate in South Africa’s higher education circles, the restructuring of higher education to a four-year degree. This does not mean that South Africa is considering transforming to a liberal arts based educational system, but rather this additional year would be a transition year. She stated that many students drop out because they aren’t fully prepared for university life and this unpreparedness expresses itself in two ways. First, students who don’t have to work, away from home for the first time, and cannot handle this level of freedom. These students end up failing out of university because they party too much. The second group fails out of university because they are not fully prepared academically. So, these students come to university, but they are not fully prepared for the academic rigor they encounter in the classroom. Additionally, these students are generally balancing more responsibilities along with adjusting to university academics. They are probably working and could also be taking care of their younger siblings for example.
I’m looking forward to my next workshop on Thursday, Authentic assessment of student learning.
Everything we discussed in the workshop kept coming back to the NMMU students. Since the context a lecturer can have an immediate impact is the classroom. If the classrooms are empty, who would you teach? Once o the presenters did mention that she’d had a professor who would give the lecture even if no one attended class that day but most people would not do that. The student body and individual students need to be considered when thinking about teaching at NMMU.
When asked about their students the lecturers were able to create a long list of attributes which make NMMU students unique in their diversity. First, multiracial/multicultural, the person who listed this attribute only said multiracial but here you always have to follow with multicultural. There are black South Africans who are Xhosa, Zulu, or one of the other distinct cultures still thriving within the boarders of this country. There was some discussion around the language policy, which states that students have the right to receive instruction in their dominate language. The provided the facilitator to provide resources to the lectures for how they can get support fulfilling this requirement.
Next, they talked about the life experiences students bring to the classroom. Students come to NMMU from rural communities and urban areas. This was one of the aspects of diversity that was talked about during our orientation. We were cautioned against thinking that as international students we were the only ones going through culture shock. Rather to be kind to our South African classmates because they could be going through culture shock as well. I couldn’t help but think of SCSU when we were told about the urban/rural divide because we have students who go through culture shock coming from tiny towns but I’m not sure how the SCSU addresses it.
Another aspect to NMMU students follows the larger context of the South African university system as a whole. When South Africa became a democracy in 1994 and the Apartheid government was officially over, suddenly the majority of students had access to the higher educational system. The transition was overnight, not in the least bit gradual. Universities are still coping or trying to cope with this paradigm shift. According to the Department of Education 70% of South African university students are the first in their families to enroll in higher education. Of the students who enroll in higher education programs 50% of them do not complete their program. Dropout rate for first-year students is 30%, while 20% dropout within year 2 or 3 (it takes 3 years to get your bachelors and a 4th year is called honors). Only 15% of South African university students complete their program of study on-time.
The lecturers said that students come to their first-year classes unprepared to learn, not knowing how to take notes or summarize. The facilitator encouraged the lecturers to take a few minutes and teach the students how to take notes for their class. Alternatively, they could bring in a representative from Academic Resources to hold a workshop. However, I did pipe up at this point and said that a lot of students don’t know how to take notes their freshman year in the States either because taking notes for high school and university is a different skill set. The conversation took a slightly different turn because the facilitator then talked about how jarring it is for students to come from primary school into university where everything is so different. Textbooks transition from only having facts to having theories and arguments. She urged the lecturers to understand the difficulty of just this much of the transition for their students along with everything else their students are dealing with.
In the United States we talk about university students struggling because of their multiple commitments. Many students are juggling work, school, and family commitments. However, in South Africa 1/5 of all children live in orphan headed households. This means that an older sibling is taking care of the younger siblings because their parents have died. So, these students are not struggling to support their own children but rather their brothers and sisters. These children lack a support network from extended family, even if they have a family member who may intermittently check on them. They did not get support from a family structure to develop natural coping skills because they had to take on the responsibility of raising their siblings.
Listing these circumstances off and calling the classroom diverse seems to be a dramatic understatement. The lecturers still have the pressure to research and publish like professors back in the states in order to get promotions and tenure. In the workshop she encouraged the lecturers to set expectations for each term on the first day of class. Structure what they expected from students and what the consequences would be if those expectations were not met. She encouraged the lecturers to be explicit about this procedure and treat the students like adults who were entering into a contract. She also suggested that they could help students learn by sharing their vulnerabilities. If they admit, for example, that they are unsure on how to use a piece of technology then ask for help from the students. She used the example of a calculator and the students were excited to show her how to use it and she was getting that all important buy-in at the same time.
Honestly, I still find it overwhelming. But they are making progress one lecturer at a time.
Yesterday I attended a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Certificate (SoTLC) workshop. These workshops are conducted by the Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Media (CTLM), which is where the former Writing Centre is now housed. The SoTLC workshops are conducted throughout the academic year and if a lecturer completes 7 of the 9 they will receive a certificate at the end. The certificate helps build their teaching portfolio and bolster their chance for tenure. This was the first workshop I attended and the topic was “Being a university teacher: the higher education context and practices.” The facilitators spent a lot of time in the workshop talking about and getting the participants to puzzle through the context in which they teach. First they discussed the context of their classroom. Then their disipline. The discussion moved next to the university, but each of these contexts offer multiple layers for analysis and reflection.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence ends.” Henry Adams
First, the university context. Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) is a unique institution. It is a new institution even though the campus and the buildings have been there for a while. The university’s formation happened in 2005 when 5 universities combined into one entity. Prior to 2005 the South Campus university was known as Univeristy of Port Elizabeth which was founded in 1964. The 5 campuses still exist with the George campus approximately 4.5 hours away. One of the presenters called it “a hybrid structure where there are universities with in the university.” NMMU became a comprehensive university in the South African sense of the term. South Africa has five comprehensive universities and they are:
- University of Johannesburg
- Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
- University of South Africa
- University of Venda
- Walter Sisulu University
The University of Johannesburg was also formed by merging other institutions into one university system. The main institution that became UofJ was founded in 1967 as Rand Afrikaans University.
Developing a distinct institutional ethos and culture as a merged African institution.
To be a dynamic African university recognized for its leadership in generating cutting-edge knowledge or a sustainable future
I was surprised by the conversation that came from placing the mission and vision statements on the power point. Being African or calling one’s self African is still a controversial subject here in South Africa. One of the presenters was a Xhosa woman and the other presenter was an Afrikaans woman. Participants in the workshop were mixed between black, colored (they still used Apartheid era distinctions as part of their rhetoric around race), and white. The first comment someone made about the mission statement was that “Do they know Africa is the contenent?” She was laughing when she said this and making a bit of a joke. The Afrikaans presenter however made the statement some people do not think she should call herself African but she is also African. This discussion didn’t really have legs (I think because it is too controversial) and we moved onto the mission statement.
Again, there was some laughter and the first thing said, by a different lecturer, was “being a ‘dynamic African university’ was in direct conflict with ‘cutting-edge knowledge.'” I struggled to not say anything because my roll as an intern and not a teacher at the institution, I felt was to listen and observe. I was furiously making notes. I spoke to the presenters after everyone else had left and asked them about that particular section of the discussion. It was my opinion that the professors were still struggling with an internalized colonial mindset of Africa or African being a synonym for something of lesser quality. I’m struck daily by the rich cultural environment of South Africa and how it is easily fertile ground for “cutting-edge knowledge.” Innovation for new teaching styles, language feels very fluid here, and I see a ripe opportunity for entrepreneurship here but it could be done in an African way not a western way. Agreeing with me she said that it was difficult for her to bring up the things I was saying because of her status as an Afrikaaner. All of that mix though is also what makes an African context challenging and unique.
“We’re out of milk.”
My face fell and then he told me, “But he’s bringing some from South Campus.”
In my mind I thought, is he bringing it or going to bring it. So I asked him if it was actually on its way.
He replied, “Yes, he’s on his way now with the milk.”
Wait, I know this usage…is he on his way now? Now, now? or just now?
He said, “My manager said that he is on his way.” Then with a sly smile, “I hope you aren’t in a hurry.”
I met with my regularly scheduled appointments. Each time I meet with these students I come away with questions on how to better serve them and how they are functioning at the university, in general. The International Office connected these particular students because they are having a difficult time with their classes. Some of them were almost kicked out of the university for not passing enough credits. However, working with them on particular writing assignments is not always what I’m asked about when they come to meet with me. This week George (not his real name) brought a friend along to his appointment. They both had questions about basic study skills. The questions weren’t just “how do I study?” No, rather these questions were along the lines of “I get up at 3am to study. Then I go to class and I’m falling asleep but when I lay down to sleep I’m wide awake. What should I do?” My first thought was one of “This isn’t what I’m here for. I’m not an expert on this.” But how can I deny them some sort of help when they are trying and reaching out?
Then I recalled so much of what I’ve learned about what it means to be the first in your family to attend university. They are here without a personal safety-net. The type of support many of us take for granted. If you aren’t the first in your family (village) to attend university, if you run into a snag you can call home and one of your parents or even an older sibling can help you work through the issue. Even if they don’t have the answer they know enough about how a university functions and the systems in place they can direct you how best to find the help you need. These particular students do not have that resource and bring with them a different set of disadvantages than the South African students. I don’t want to say worse because to each student their set of disadvantages are their own personal struggle and I do not like getting into “my suffering is worse than yours” arguments. Since I’m coming from the outside I also do not want to put qualifiers because it can get too close to judgement for my liking.
While they lack a personal safety-net of family or community, they are here as a group. They help support each other through the difficulties they have had getting assimilated into South Africa’s university system. Each time I work with George and the other Nigerian students I always have it in the back of my mind how limited my time is here. Empowering them with off-line tools for improving their academic writing because they do not have internet at home and computer labs are difficult to access here on campus. Often when I was at the Write Place and working with English 190 students I would give students links to online resources, it became second nature. I especially like giving students links to EngVid videos because then students can easily watch it over at their own pace to better understand the topic. George told me that he has tried to watch the links I sent him in the library but that sometimes the computers in the library are too slow to view them properly.
So, we had a conversation about study habits.
I’m not sure how many time I heard that from Manus this weekend, but whenever he said it, I smiled. Because I knew we were about to have another little adventure. I had an idea of what we were going to do because of this awesome video Chris, from NMMU’s International Office made. However, I didn’t have an itinerary for the weekend even though there was a rumor of one among our travel group.
We were picked up at our accommodation around 10 on Friday. We were on time but the combis were not. But as we know by now, Africa is flixible. *smiles* We got everyone loaded into the two vans and headed to the third student accommodations to pick-up the last students for our trip. Evidently, they had already been there once to attempt getting the students but no one had answered the door. However, when we pulled up this time they were waiting outside for us. With the last students onboard we got on the highway. I was looking forward to our first stop at Nanaga Farm Stall, where we had lunch when we did our elephant ride. I knew that we had some yummy treats waiting for us there! I got an egg and cheese sandwich on an oven bun. It was amazing! I also got some chips (crisps) for later and drinks. I don’t know what it is but I’m always thirsty here. After our stop we still had 2/3 of our drive left before we arrived at the farm.
Our next stop was a gas station and we were told that we only had 45 minutes left on our trip. What was left out was that it was 45 minutes down a dirt/gravel road. One aspect of my study abroad experience here is that I always feel like we are dealing with a lack of information when we are on a school sponsored event. Back home we always have a lot of information but here it is never enough. One other quick point about road trips here…it is always difficult to know how long we have been in the car. I feel like a child again. Since all of the markers are metric and the cars or vans are in kpm it can be difficult to determine how long we’ve been on the road or how much longer we have to go. Couple those with the wide open spaces and all of these trips are new areas we are traveling…well, it always feels like we are driving much longer distances than time has actually passed.
The timing for the trip was perfect because at about 1/2 way through our semester everyone enjoyed being in an actual home again. The couple me and the other SCSU girls stayed with welcomed us with open arms! We had a fire on their back porch the first night we were there with beer and wine. They got us warm from the inside out! Then the next two days were a couple of the best I’ve had since being here in South Africa. We hiked, fed baby kudu who had been orphaned because of hunters, saw goats that were less than 48 hours old, had an impromptu dance party, and we ate! Oh, the food was beyond amazing! And my stomach did not get a chance to even growl the whole weekend.
Then on Sunday we all swam into the jail. The water was SO cold that if I was pregnant my child would be getting ice cream, not milk! The formation is called the jail because there is only one way in and that is through the “Front Door.” I’m sure it is a great place to cool off in the mid-December heat but at the beginning of Autumn, when no sun warms the water-it was c-o-l-d! Like everything else I’ve done since landing in South Africa, I was glad I did it! The formation has been created by water eroding the rocks of the mountain until it cut through. Now, there is a waterfall and this brilliant single formation. As SCSU students this trip is included as part of our program fee and I’m thankful it was.
Ok, so you have had an amazing study abroad experience but now what? These are good tips on how to best capitalize on your semester abroad and incorporate your unique experience into your job search resource package. Study abroad often gets relayed back home to friends and family as a long trip. But as students who are eventually entering the job market (like it or not) we need to think of our time abroad also through the lens of our future interviewers.