University has been a place where we walk into great halls or auditoriums with anticipation of what the future holds! There we spend numerous hours, every day of the week, all in hopes of gathering sufficient information to make it through to the next semester! Every once in a while we have a brief dialogue with the lecturer, while only the bravest ever attempt to make a remark during a lecture or even oppose or have a conversation regarding a subject in a class! Fear of the loudmouth and know-it-all tagline, has kept many a student silent — and there is heavy cultural pressure to “respect your elders” by never questioning authority… But this can be detrimental to a student hoping to get into postgraduate studies, for a variety of reasons. The most critical of these being the ability to communicate and express an opinion. Having being in a “traditional” university style environment, I was in for a bit of “enlightenment” if you will, on this Fulbright endeavour!Mathapelo UMCES CBL

I find myself in a very different environment at the University of Maryland. The research laboratories of the university are collectively known as Centre of Environmental Science, all of which are completely detached from the main university. Here, the community is comprised, solely, of postgraduates and researchers, running various research projects. I’ve been used to boundaries between students and lecturers, so this collegial working environment was an adjustment, culturally and academically. Students didn’t even have to leave the centre for classes –  in fact, I was quite impressed that classes were offered via a video network. Even more-so, the small size of the class meant that it would be more interactive too. These “seminar” classes are held once a week for two hours, where we have discussions, with all the lecturers and classmates, about our thoughts on a paper we had to read up on in preparation for the class. The introverted aura I spoke of earlier will not do here as everyone’s perspective is considered important. In fact, part of your final “grade” is built on your vocal participation in class.

This was a bit challenging — even though we were warned at the orientation — that we must actively participate in classes right from the beginning to ensure that we understand, but also to pass the grade! Statistics, we were told, have apparently shown that those don’t do this at the inception of the graduate life, would be quiet the entire semester. Listening to these warnings and having gone through the experience of this newer academic culture, a new thought for African science emerges: Why are we building a culture of individuals who do not question, where an answer is either right or wrong? When do we get to a state where there is fluidity in teaching and learning, in both content and delivery? I know there are differences in teaching style between lectures on the same campus, between universities, and between disciplines. And large classes often discourage opinionated discussions. But there is a lot to learn in acknowledging that one is not always right, and being open to other opinions could be the beginning of education. For both students and lecturers.

Aberration through contemplation

After eighteen hours of travel, from OR Tambo to Atlanta Georgia, then to Boston, the American dream had finally begun for me. That pounding heart and those sweaty palms, although still present, had dissipated a tad.

The first leg of my voyage started with a week of orientation in Boston. There I met other Fulbright students from all over the world, about sixty of us representing forty-three countries, leading to a remarkable diversity in both thought and culture. What none of us realized until then, was the tremendous obligations bestowed upon us, through this fellowship. Not only to learn, but returning to our homelands to implement our new insights and discoveries.

Sight-seeing with other Fulbrighters

Something prodigious already struck me in this first week of being in the USA. Something you don’t realize just from watching Hollywood movies or CNN. I noticed stark differences in the mentality of lecturers in the States versus South Africa. In our own context, universities are mainly focused on providing students – those who can afford it, might I add – with the opportunity to get formal education, which may or may not result in getting a job. Our primary focus is not to engage students on a personal level, or for them to know that they too have a role to play in the bigger scheme of things.

We need to ask ourselves how we plan on building a self-sufficient base of individuals who are also driven to make their communities better. Only a few people have the opportunity to engage in “higher” learning, which really should teach us how to achieve a higher purpose. This is vital, as multitudes of our fellow country women and men are suffocating in poverty and the only way out is to work, with the sole purpose of fending for their families. This breaks my heart because we as a society, while drenched in the inequalities of the past, have no vision of making the ubuntu dream come into being. We all strive to better ourselves instead of working collectively to foster social change.

Boston at night (from work mac).jpg
Boston at night

This attitude towards education (basic and higher) appears to be very different in the USA. While having discussions with professors from Suffolk University, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of public schools and universities in Boston. Even more so at these professors’ attitudes toward them.  They are pro public and against private tuition. One of professors, who is with child, expressed her desire for her child to be in a public school, a consequence of their reputable high standard and quality of education, but also the possibility of them interacting with children from all walks of life. I was shocked to find out that these schools are free and funded through the taxes paid by the community. Just imagine if that were the case in South Africa!!! The possibilities of the policies laid out post 1994 would be fruitful!

Right now the “South-African dream” seems to be very self-centered: making more money, being wealthy, living in suburbs, at the detriment of others. While all these luxuries may be comfortable, how many children go without even realizing their dreams? We recently heard from Stats SA how 55% of young people are without jobs. While we campaign for them to start their own businesses, are we equipping them with the necessary skills? During my time in Boston I learned of a community outreach program stemming from the university, called Future Chefs. It was created to assist in the development of young people, who will and have become independent and engaged citizens. The passion expressed by the young chefs, products of this program, reverberated amongst us and gave me a different perspective. How do we as South Africa create such opportunities?20819127_1642012392498853_4824833003063238556_o.jpg

Unless we create hope, the future will always seem bleak for our people. We must take it upon ourselves to ensure that we change lives, no matter how small that change may be. While social grants may be good and well, these do not equip people with the skills they need to become better versed in making themselves more productive. Until we change our mindset on how to better people’s lives, we have failed to be what we have sought to become. Our young democracy must be nurtured, and so must its people. A new fire burns within me, to ensure that I make a difference in my society. It doesn’t help to be successful alone while many people suffer in silence. We must make this democracy become a reality. It may not be today, but we can learn from other nations and restructure our thinking. Money may make the world go around but knowledge and skills will sustain us forever.