Colourful Education: An exercise in transformation

By Shraddha Patnala

#RhodesSoWhite bombarded students on every medium of communication possible. Even WhatsApp was not spared the news of this clarion call for a name change at Rhodes University. The political avalanche, bringing with it the strong anti-colonial sentiments, hit Grahamstown forcing us at Rhodes University to reconsider our identity. “RhodesMustFall” they said. “Transformation”, they protested.

Education was, in essence, the most powerful weapon with which colonisers controlled the indigenous people. The Apartheid Government’s Bantu Education Act 47 divided the education budget according to the ideology at the time: the maintenance of white supremacy. Non-white children were restricted to only a few years of education and only by African teachers who themselves were limited in their knowledge and resources. The ramifications caused on the social, economic, psychological and cultural ideals and development has now brought the born-frees of this country into the tangle that is called fair education.

Boasting a student body almost 8000 strong, the 111 year old University has seen the fruits of its policies to include staff and students of other nationalities and races. The Mission Statement stands out for two reasons. One, Rhodes aims to “attract and retain” excellent staff; and two, it ensures anti-discrimination.

For Dr Sandile Khamanga in the Faculty of Pharmacy, Rhodes is a home. “It’s a very organised academic institution…it was more responsive to my needs and I was accepted as well,” he said. A member of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, he cuts a modern and practical facet to the lectures. As a warden he sees the residence system as a “country”; with Rhodes providing academic space for staff and students from various Southern African countries like Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Swaziland, there is intense diversity where all walks of life are represented.

Priya Vallabh chose Rhodes by default. Apart from lecturing at the Environmental Learning and Research Centre (ELRC), she develops environmental education teaching modules for schools in the Makana district. She describes Rhodes as a separate entity from the ELRC, which lies sheltered from the harsher realities of segregation between staff and students of the main campus. Vallabh enjoys the exceptionally diverse group of staff and post-graduate scholars, describing them as professionals who have worked together over the years to build something other departments have only just started.

“We find it really strange that the rest of campus is so segregated,” she said. The campus doesn’t tend to engage with the ELRC as much as those who actively seek it out. Personal relationships, and therefore their academic collaborations are strengthened because of their ability to separate their culture and their views on a subject, but still manage to make it culturally sensitive and critically engaging at the same time. Vallabh believes “academic diversity” enriches the projects and their ability to critically engage with the environmental projects – which need people to work together on a basis of mutual respect, especially towards others’ cultural ideals.

Internationally, Universities are achieving this level of transformation. Princeton University’s Diversity and Inclusion committee focuses on how best to provide access and support to international, multi-racial, women, and Lesbian Gay Bisexual Queer and Transgender (LGBQT) students. Associate Dean Dale Trevino intends to work with all academic departments to achieve this. Cornell University is providing its student demographics for all to understand their endeavours to make their foreign students feel at home. Despite America’s former racial segregation and discrimination, these Universities still carry a prestigious name – not many will ever think of changing it – and are now building their skills capacity by inviting foreign skills.

Closer to home, the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies is strengthening their own skills capacity through what they call “diversity literacy”; enhancing the academic and social environment. University of Stellenbosch incorporates similar principles in what they call an “integrated Transformation Plan”, promoting a diverse staff to complement their increasingly diverse student body they believe that academic excellence, inclusion, and diversity are intertwined with the future of South Africa’s graduates.

Rhodes University promotes these ideals through its International Office, headed by Director Orla Quinlan. An international staff member herself, she believes that international staff and students must be just as proactive in their approach to becoming a part of the University. The Office presents the Internationalization award for a multi-perspective curriculum – which tends to come from those who have incorporated internationalisation of the curriculum and research. The 2014 recipients were from these categories respectively.

With an increasing diversity in staff and student count, Rhodes University is becoming renowned for its ability to facilitate learning and research for foreign students while also giving local students a chance at learning about the people they share the world with. Students at Rhodes are presented with equal chances at gaining a truly international experience, simply because the staff here bring examples, experiences and values from their own cultures and countries, making the process of transformation here that are much more tangible.

Although Rhodes may not be a home for some foreign students, Vallabh reminds us that “…we have to find ways to work together, to make the best of what we have…we bring to the pot of our discipline a richness that wouldn’t be there if it was just one group or the other.”

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Polls conducted on foreign students at Rhodes University.

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Shraddha is currently in her first year at Rhodes University, majoring in Journalism and Chinese. I also study Legal Theory and, English Language and Linguistics. I am currently associated with the ELRC as a student assistant. Email her for any queries.

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