University of Vermont

Inspiring Change, A World Away

Visiting South African students leave with a mission

Goodwill Shelile
Goodwill Shelile, a human molecular biology major, discusses the development of prejudice with members of Sherwood Smith’s class. (Photo: Raj Chawla)

It was more than snow that excited the South Africans. (Though it did graciously fall early in their two-week visit to Vermont.) The delegation of ten students from the University of the Free State, here to explore new perspectives on race and gender as well as models of student leadership, were ignited – at times discomfited – by the open dialogue in venues across the UVM campus.

“They found themselves in situations that are very different from what they’re used to back home,” says Lerato Makhele, the trip mentor, a psychologist who provides counseling for the university’s 20,000 students. “We’re from a very conservative area in central South Africa.”

The group, chosen through a rigorous selection process, is part of a large-scale effort to improve campus climate at UFS. Historically a traditional Afrikaans-language university, the institution has undergone rapid integration – along with the predictable conflict, including a particularly painful racial incident in 2008. Black students now form a majority of the student body and classes are taught in both English and Afrikaans.

In its work toward reconciliation, in 2010 UFS launched Leadership for Change, a program in which 150 students, at the end of their first year, travel in small groups, such as this one, to universities from Japan to Europe to the U.S., getting a broad sense of how different races, classes and genders can live and learn together. UVM is participating along with other American institutions including Cornell, NYU, Holy Cross and the University of Minnesota. “We’re really investing in this,” Makhele says.

Breaking boundaries

The visiting students clearly didn’t find the balance of blacks and whites they are used to at home, but they did note a willingness to be open about it. “It’s not that racially diverse,” says Willem du Plooy, “but we see a lot of programs and activities that help people of different races come together. It’s great, diversity is great on this campus.”

He also noted, with interest and approval, the unisex toilets in the Davis Center (a building he would like to take back home). Yet it’s clear that issues of sexuality freely discussed at UVM were the most controversial for the South Africans. Race, for better and worse, is a more open topic in their world. But in an itinerary that included an ice hockey game and pizza-making night among classes and lectures, breakfast with ALANA students and a myriad of other possible activities, there was a required lunch with LGBTQA services.

“I’m quite a conservative person in the sense of our traditions,” du Plooy says, and yet he calls that meeting “enriching” and says he believes he has changed, that he feels more accepting.

Kanya Penxa echoes the sense of self-growth. He says he thought he was open-minded when he arrived and dismissed the idea that the experience here would test his boundaries. “I was put in uncomfortable situations,” he admits. “I was surprised how I the second or third time around I realized I’m more comfortable than I was when I arrived.”

But if the group was willing to push their personal comfort zones, what stunned and excited them was discovering the power of the student voice at UVM. They met with the SGA president, with the peer judicial board, with a student trustee.

“The student voice is heard on campus,” Penxa says, apparently an unknown at the University of the Free State.

“It would be wild to actually have that big a say in the university, very inspiring,” du Plooy adds. Now we have to find out the boundaries of what we can do (at home). I’m hoping we’ll move forward from there.”

And that is the hope of the program. “The idea is students will take the initiative,” Makhele says. “It’s about taking ownership of your own culture, your own environment.”

Abroad view

For UVM students, who by all accounts were strikingly open and welcoming, having the South Africans on campus was a rich opportunity to glimpse a different culture – and view their own privilege. “It’s really important to just raise the international scene on campus,” says senior anthropology major Monica Johnson who helped guide the group before taking off for a semester in Istanbul. “It’s a great way for our students to interact, to get a different point of view, to learn that college in South Africa is not the given that it is here.”

Furthering the exchange – and keeping the dialogue open – UVM is invited to send a delegation of students, faculty and staff to a two-week conference at UFS in July to discuss how issues of race and gender are dealt with on campuses internationally.

As Makhele and anthropology professor Robert Gordon, who was instrumental in bringing the program here, both say in different ways, universities and students have more similarities than differences. “The way I define anthropology,” Gordon says, “is the study of solving common problems using alternative methods.”

The path to answers then is to keep traveling, keep questioning, keep the international exchanges a vibrant part of university life. “The art of conversation,” says Gordon, “is like a jam session. You should never know where it’s going to end.” Hopefully in this case, it won't.