Thu. May 30th, 2024

This fall, Timothy Jussaume joined West Chester University as the new director of the Honors College. This role is responsible for leading the Honors College’s faculty and staff, influencing the development of innovative curricula, and instilling an environment that encourages intellectual exploration and academic excellence. In addition to the change of director, the Honors College biennial trip to South Africa has received a change in administration. Dr. Meghan Ramick, associate professor of Kinesiology, and Dr. Matt Saboe, professor of Economics, were asked to lead the Honors South Africa trip in the final weeks of the fall 2023 semester. 

The Honors College has sent a group of students to South Africa every two years since 2001. However, this trip has had several points of contention among students throughout the years. Some students believe the trip is a necessary experience in order to develop international relationship building. Others have speculated that the trip is just a sightseeing vacation, blinded by a white-knight perspective, in order to carry out charity work to ‘fix’ one of the most developed and technologically advanced countries on the continent. With those perspectives in mind, I wondered how the new administration would address these concerns. I decided to go to the source and ask Dr. Ramick and Dr. Saboe directly. 

On the Honors College website under International Travel is a brief sentence about the mission of the South Africa trip: “South Africa: Since 2001, every other year, the Honors College sends a delegation of students to South Africa to participate in a variety of community engagement, research, and service activities to enrich student understanding of international relationship building and assist them in learning the concepts of philanthropy and good stewardship on the social level.” I asked Dr. Ramick and Dr. Saboe how the South Africa trip plans to fulfill these goals. 

“While we are unsure of the status of future trips at this time, the May 2023 Honors study abroad trip to South Africa focused solely on global citizenship,” said Dr. Ramick and Dr. Saboe. This goal fulfills the student learning outcomes of Global Knowledge, Awareness, Understanding and Perspective, Critical Thinking Skills in a Global Context and Application and Engagement in a Global Society. 

Dr. Ramick and Dr. Saboe furthered this point by explaining, “Our 2023 trip purposefully did not contain a research or service component, but instead focused on experiences that supported these goals. We worked closely with our [South Africa] travel partners, community builders, and leaders of the anti-apartheid movement to develop a mutually enriching itinerary.” Dr. Ramick and Dr. Saboe provided me with numerous examples of those experiences, which include: 

  1. Spending a full day with a couple dozen members of the Zwelihle Township community and Rev. Edwin Arrison, who is the Development Officer of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation, Director of the Volmoed Youth Leadership Training Program (VYLTP), and a close friend and mentee of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This day began with each WCU student partnering with a VYLTP individual. Then, they went on a walking tour of the Zwelihle township, where VYLTP youth showed them their homes, schools, and businesses. They ate lunch and participated in their drum circle. The group manufactures drums they sell to support their mission, but they also lead drum circles in their community that are very moving. The group visited the Volmoed retreat center where they engaged in discussions on leadership and Desmond Tutu’s 4 Hs (Humanity, Humor, Hope, and Healing). Finally, they finished the day with a group dinner at a local restaurant in Hermanus.
  2. Spending a half day with Gail Johnson and Nkosi’s Haven residents. Nkosi’s Haven, founded in honor of Nkosi, an inspirational young boy who passed away from AIDS, aims to fulfill Nkosi’s vision that mothers and children who were diagnosed with HIV could be treated together. Here, they heard from Gale and learned from her story of starting, growing and sustaining Nkosi’s mission, including how they overcame challenges faced during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read more about the organization here: http://nkosishaven.org.
  3. Visiting museums and cultural sites including the Desmond and Leah Tutu Museum, Apartheid Museum, Iziko Slave Lodge, Robben Island, District Six Museum, Cradle of Humankind, Regina Mundi Church and Soweto.
  4. Embarking on tours of Langa Township, school, orphanage and art galleries with Odwa Futshane. Students also had the opportunity to meet with some of the artists in Langa and create their own project to take home with the help of resident sculptors.
  5. A half day with the Mbekweni Youth Center members. Students spent time getting to know community members over lunch, a group workout session and games. Director Selwyn Paterson explained the center’s programs.
  6. A half day spent with teachers and students of Nederberg Primary school discussing education and interacting with the children.
  7. Discussions with several other current community builders and activists.

An anonymous author in the Honors College wrote a piece for The Quad titled “The Fault in Our Honors College”. This piece was highly critical of the trip, stating that, “The culminating voyage of volunteerism is nothing more than a 13-day sightseeing tour and photo-op. Dean raves about the day trips to Victoria Falls and the Cape of Good Hope, throwing in a visit to a soup kitchen or school for good measure… Every aspect of the initiative pushes the age-old narrative that Africa is, and always has been, a place that needs Americans’ help, that “dirt-hut” perspective that perpetuates racism-based pity here in the United States.”

I brought this piece up with Dr. Ramick and Dr. Saboe. “We categorically stand against white saviorism and study abroad trips that promote such beliefs. We spent class time discussing the dangers of white saviorism by inviting subject-matter experts as guest lecturers and engaging in important conversations. Our trip focused on how much we could learn from [South Africa] and how to do so in a responsible way,” said Dr. Ramick and Dr. Saboe. 

In connection to the arguments brought up in “The Fault in Our Honors College”, I also asked what changes have been or are being made within the South Africa trip to address these concerns. Dr. Ramick and Dr. Saboe responded by stating, “There were many aspects of the program that we changed. Removing the service and research components allowed students to visit [South Africa] without believing they were there to “fix” or solve problems. Involving and encouraging [South Africa] travel partners who shared this vision to lead was extremely helpful and showed throughout the trip. In addition to our class discussions and guest speakers who specifically addressed white saviorism, we discussed these topics in [South Africa] with anti-apartheid and anti-colonial leaders.” 

They continued by explaining, “[South Africa] is immensely beautiful, and we do visit places such as the Cape of Good Hope, Table Mountain, and a wildlife preserve. These are some of the most incredible places on Earth and essential elements of the [South Africa] culture. We want students to understand all of the incredible and unique assets[South Africa] offers to the world from their warm, welcoming and vibrant culture to their incredible natural beauty.” 

In addition to these program changes, I wondered how the new Honors College director, Dr. Jussaume, would affect the South Africa trip and its related courses. Previously, many Honors College students found themselves feeling unable to discuss issues with the Honors College under the previous Director, Dr. Dean. When asked about this, Emily, a third-year Honors College student, said, “Dr. Dean often felt like a ‘monolithic figure,’ in a sense… bringing up issues felt impossible, if only because Dean acted as a monolithic representation of what happened within the College.” 

Seeing Dr. Dean as representative of the Honors College rather than a resource to go to regarding the efficiency, effectiveness and state of it prohibits students from addressing issues and making adequate changes. It seems that Dr. Jussaume’s drive to center his aims around Honors College students is making a big impact. Since the beginning of the 2023-2024 academic year, Honors College students have found it much easier to point out problems they experience. When asked about the experience, Emily stated, “With Dr. Jussaume, I feel at least moderately comfortable with discussing issues with him, and that my voice is being heard.” 

The ease of conversation has allowed for much improvement to be made already, notably in its courses. An overhaul of select HON courses has already occurred in which the courses were investigated for revisions. For instance, HON 351, titled “Leadership and Lessons from South Africa,” was heavily focused around the notion of ‘saving South Africa’ and required the reading of a sensitive book, Kaffir Boy, that was focused around growing up during Apartheid in South Africa. Following the overhaul, HON 351 addressed these issues.The course is now focused around general leadership lessons from South Africa. Kaffir Boy has been removed from the syllabus and the class has been redesigned to enforce and support student success. This can be attributed to students feeling comfortable enough to discuss issues that allow the Honors College Administration to make proper changes and alterations to adjust to their needs.

When asked about this, Dr. Ramick and Dr. Saboe made it clear that student feedback has also played a major role in the revisions made to the trip. “Having traveled to South Africa with the Honors College previously, we tried to merge our own feedback with that of our current students to revamp and restructure the trip. We started the semester by opening the floor to hear what the students had heard about the trip, what they each hoped to get out of the trip, hear their concerns and offer full transparency from our experience. We used this conversation and others like it throughout the semester to help shape portions of the itinerary. Relative to past trips, some excursions were taken off the itinerary, which made room to add others based on new opportunities and student feedback.” 

In addition to this, Dr. Ramick and Dr. Saboe stated that they want to use future feedback from students in order to continue improving the trip. “We hope to further refine the itinerary based on our experiences this past trip and feedback from students and our community partners.” 

When concluding with Dr. Ramick and Dr. Saboe, I asked what about the South Africa trip they were most excited about since they took it over. Expressing much enthusiasm, they said, “The study abroad trip to South Africa is life-changing as much for students as it is for us. This trip offers exceptional opportunities for relationship building between students and community members, but also between faculty and students who form special lifelong bonds. We believe in the power of study abroad, but believe South Africa offers a unique learning experience beyond other destinations for so many reasons. It is our hope that the South Africa trip continues in some capacity in the future. We also hope to involve more WCU faculty and to make the trip more accessible to all WCU students.” 

 


Sierra Williams is a fourth-year English and Political Science major. SW960048@wcupa.edu

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