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Fulbright trip broadens global perspective

ImageThis story originally appeared in the Getty College of Arts & Sciences Newsletter.

Africa seems such a distant land, an exotic, strange and somewhat forbidding place. Those thousands of miles of separation might as well be millions, unless you make a connection with the people who live there – people with concerns not unlike those of many elsewhere: education, fair representation, justice, and the preservation of personal dignity.

A group of students and educators from Ohio Northern University and the surrounding area have spanned that geographic gap with a bridge built on friendship, trust, relationships and the most basic of educational assistance. The University has become an effective ambassador with this venture, which has at its foundation the study of the emerging democracy in South Africa, and what it might tell us about our own mature and continually evolving form of government.

Dr. Sandra Crosser, a professor in ONU’s Center for Teacher Education, received a Fulbright Group Studies Aboard grant from the U.S. Department of Education that allowed her to take a small group to South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province for a month this summer to study the culture, political history, language and literature of South Africa as they also examined that democracy still in its infancy.

The Fulbright Group Studies Abroad grant, totaling $88,440, was to fund a Short Term Curriculum Development Project titled “South Africa: Perspectives on Democracy.” The U.S. Department of Education grant covers 55.5 percent of the total project costs. ONU’s in-kind and direct costs related to the project are $58,679 and the total participant fees are $12,441, making up the remaining 44.5 percent of the costs.

ImageThe ONU contingent, which included four teachers, four teacher candidates from the University and six faculty members, built a playground at a school in South Africa and presented teachers in the province with 700 pounds of basic school supplies they brought from America in their luggage. Two notebook computers were given to teachers at a poor secondary school so they can better prepare themselves to educate their students.

“We were able to help them out with some instructional supplies, but we gained much more in terms of understanding as a result of this venture,” said Crosser, who has visited the same area and conducted outreach activities with other CTE faculty there for the past three years.

Shawnee High School social studies teacher Chad Spencer was one of the area educators who took part in the exchange. He said his month on the African continent allows him to bring a wealth of first-hand knowledge of South Africa and its inherent issues and problems directly to his classroom.

“The most valuable part of this experience for me is that it has given me a broader global perspective that hopefully will serve to make me a better person and teacher,” Spencer said. “I learned so much, not only from those I met in South Africa, but also from my fellow group members, an experience I value greatly.”

Katelyn Amendolara, a senior art major from Canfield, Ohio, said she was initially taken aback by the conditions at the schools in the township the group visited – schools surrounded by large, razor-wired fences, bare dirt grounds, and holding small classrooms with limited supplies – but she was buoyed by the children’s zest for learning.

“The kids were like sponges. They were so open to learning anything and everything,” she said. “I studied art while I was there, and the arts were very rich in creativity and resources.”

ImageBetsy Bair, a senior early childhood education major from Stow, Ohio, said seeing rhinos on a daily basis reminded her how far she was from home, but the passion for educating the teachers there showed her how closely their mission mirrored that of teachers here in the U.S.

“We spoke with people individually and with groups, and we found so many common threads.”

 “I met some great people who genuinely care for their students and wanted to make themselves better educators for their students,” Bair said. “I studied the democracy and school system in the area to a point where I have a million more questions, but know a million more things than I had before.”

Crosser said the ONU group benefited greatly from the University’s past work in the area. 

“At first, the people were very skeptical, but those relationships we’ve built in the schools and the community over the years are a key. They build trust, and people become much less foreign,” Crosser said.

She said the group left South Africa enriched by the culture, the friendships and relationships the ONU educators built there, and the knowledge gained in a month of firsthand contact.

“We come back feeling like it was a very rewarding and educational experience for everyone, but we also come back with an overwhelming list of things we would like to do there.”