From classroom discussion to funding a school

Africa must be in my script for life.

In 1965, I spent my freshman year at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria. As the only white student for most of the year, I had a unique set of experiences and made a group of friends who have influenced my life ever since.

Fast-forward to 1996, with me in the role of university professor rather than student. I spent a year's sabbatical at the Border Technikon in East London, South Africa. I was helping to establish a center for academic development, based upon work my colleagues and I had done at Utah State University. My placement was made possible by the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH).

Back in the United States the next year, I devised an honors course entitled "Race and Communication in the USA and the New South Africa," which I taught over the next three years to four classes of undergraduate students.

We explored the unfamiliar world of South Africa, mainly from a black perspective, and then, midway through the class, turned our focus to a similar look at racial matters in the US.

We read a variety of authors, invited in guest speakers, and corresponded by e-mail with students in South Africa. My students were frequently astonished to discover parallels between barriers to progress for blacks in South Africa and in the US.

During my second time teaching the course, I mentioned that IFESH had a program to build elementary schools in Africa, at a cost of $10,000 for a two-room school.

Several students caught hold of that idea and commented, "How hard would that be, anyway? We could do that." Before the hour was over, we had decided as a class to build a school in South Africa.

Raising money is difficult, however. That class's personal contributions and a collection table in our student union netted $2,000. The next class sponsored two dances and did door-to-door "dorm storming" to raise another $2,000.

The final group organized a three-mile Walkathon, enlisting the help of various groups on campus, and raised $4,000. Last May, we donated $8,355 to IFESH to build the school.

This experience was a form of service learning. Student energies were turned from yet another class assignment to doing something that will make a difference in the world.

I learned that having students study oppressive conditions without being able to do anything about these conditions is a recipe for apathy or cynicism. My classes needed a positive outlet for idealism.

Six months later, the new Dukelweni School has been built. Our donation, combined with funds from the New Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, helped build the four-classroom school near Port St. Johns, in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. The school is big enough to accommodate 145 students and nine teachers.

Other outcomes are intangible. As one black student noted when asked how to begin a conversation with someone of another race, "It is quite easy to start a conversation when you are working side by side on something you both believe in."

Friendships and opportunities for service keep coming up. I think Africa now appears in several people's scripts for life. Seven students involved with the class have now done internships in South Africa. And the others will be thinking about their role in building that school for a long time.

• Nick Eastmond is a professor of instructional technology at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. More information about the Schools for Africa program is available at http://www.ifesh.org.

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