During the upcoming 2012-2013 winter break, Eric Singer, director of the International Scholars Program and chair of the international relations and political science department, along with Janet Shope, professor of sociology, will lead a three-week intensive course abroad to South Africa. The course will focus on civil society and social change throughout the Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, and Western Cape provinces of the country, and participants will explore community organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in these areas. While spreading their resources throughout the country may mean sacrificing depth of experience within one specific region, Professor Singer emphasized the importance of gathering a breadth of knowledge about the differences between the various areas of South Africa.
While Professor Singer and Professor Shope are still ironing out some of the finer details of the program, they spent this past spring break in South Africa, meeting with potential partners. Professor Shope says that she and Professor Singer have not relied on any universities or organizations in the planning process. Rather, the pair has relied on the relationships they have established with people in South Africa over the course of seven previous ICA programs.
“We identify people and organizations that are addressing the kinds of issues that we think our students are interested in exploring,” she says. “We contact them, we meet with them, [and] we discuss possibilities for projects or experiences with their organizations. And then we—which we’re still in the process of doing now—try to find a way to … fit everything in, which is a real challenge.”
Professor Singer emphasized the importance of this specific program’s grounding in active student participation in community organizations, saying that this “is the best way for them to get a perspective on that community.”
The two leaders of the South Africa ICA met with several of these organizations during their site visits over spring break. Two of these organizations, both based in the Limpopo province, work with children and youth in communities. Another organization fosters a program in which South African young adults enter a leadership academy and implement a community-based project, while yet another focuses on issues concerning HIV/AIDS and health care in rural communities. A fifth organization, called Valley Trust, is a clinic that also deals with HIV/AIDS. A sixth possibility would be a sizeable market in Durban, giving Goucher students the opportunity to work with some of the vendors.
Both Professor Singer and Professor Shope stressed the integral facets of the semester-long required pre-course to the ICA that participants will enroll in for the fall semester. The course will educate students on the history of South Africa, as well as its government, economy, culture, and community based organizations, NGOs, and social change.
“As unexciting as it is,” says Professor Singer, “I think students need to develop an appreciation for the institutional arrangements of the South African states because that really affects small communities.” He adds, however, that they will hopefully be able to incorporate films and novels that “[get] at some ways in which South Africans have depicted the cultural context of the ways in which political and social change [are] being affected.”
One practical component of the precourse that Professor Shope, in particular, commented on is the ability of students to engage and interact with community members while abroad.
“It’s not easy to know how to engage people and talk about various things, so I think part of the precourse will include some simulations and strategies for doing that. … I think we want students who are willing to do that, who are willing to … take the risk.”
Professor Singer added that “a very important element to the success of the program is the creation of a positive group dynamic and people who are willing and able to work well in a group environment and who are also willing to speak up while they’re in South Africa. In our past trips we’ve had a number of students who have, for whatever reason, really not participated. They have sort of sat silently as the South African landscape has literally passed them by.”
Both professors said that group dynamic and participation during the trip to South Africa are important particularly because of the time and energy put forth by the organizations with which they and their students will be partnering. Professor Singer pointed out that while Goucher students might feel awkward in expressing themselves and communicating with the community members, they must remember that the community members will often feel the same way.
“The people with whom they’re interacting are also feeling a little challenged because for some of them, English may not be their first language and so they are self-conscious of their English,” he says. “Our job is to help our students make their hosts feel comfortable talking to them and that’s a skill that’s … good to have whether you’re going to South Africa or working in a corporate environment here.”
In addition, Professor Shope remarked, “There’s this generosity of spirt there that I think is really quite remarkable, and I think students get an opportunity to see people who do extraordinary work with few resources. … You meet these people who are making all kinds of small changes, and who believe that they’re able to have some effect. That’s part of the ICA that I think has the potential to be transformative for students.”