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The Heart of Learning: Lessons from Africa

by Pamela Serota Cote, Associate Dean of International and Diversity Programs

This past November, Colby-Sawyer celebrated its third annual International Education Week (IEW). A joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education, IEW was established in 2000 to promote programs that prepare Americans for a global environment and to attract future leaders from abroad to study, learn and exchange experiences in the U.S.

When I stepped into the position of associate dean of International and Diversity Programs in fall 2010, I made it a priority to bring this annual celebration to Colby­Sawyer as a way for our college community to highlight the college's emphasis on global education and the ways we link students to the world.

Colby-Sawyer has made great strides in increasing the diversity of our students, especially in the recruitment of international students. We have seen rapid growth in the past few years, not only in the numbers of International students, but also in the diversity of nations they represent. The brilliant colors of our students' national flags now encircle Thornton Living Room, in close prox­imity to elegant paintings of our founders and past leaders, symbolizing our efforts to build a global community at the heart of our small New England college.

International Education Week seeks to forge connections between international and domestic students, celebrate cul­tures, raise awareness and encourage dialogue about global issues. This year's events focus­ed on the theme of Africa, the homeland of many of our students and an opportunity to show­case an intriguing mix of complementary programs.

Enoch Holu '13, a Wesson Honors student who last summer researched the modern effects of the slave trade on his native Ghana through a grant from the Wesson Idea Fund, shared his findings with the community. Working with his advisor, Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Education Eric Boyer, Holu delivered an impres sive presentation at an afternoon talk on the first day. Later that day the community enjoyed “An African Election” (Merz,2011),” a documentary about the democratic process in Ghana, hosted by Professor Boyer who led a discussion afterward.

Another documentary film, “Sweet Crude” (Cioffi 2009), focused on the oil industry in the Niger Delta. This event, hosted by Assistant Professors of Environmental Studies Harvey Pine and Jennifer White, connected international education to environmental issues and the college's theme of Living Sustainably.

The new African Student Association hosted a celebration of African culture, for which they prepared and served authentic foods from around Africa. They also held a fashion show featuring traditional African dress, played African music, and taught cultural dances to those in attendance. While many of IEW's programs showcase our community members' talents and contributions, we also like to feature special guest presenters. This year the Global Nomads Group (GNG) engaged our students in “Million Bones,” a collective art project to raise awareness of an ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The GNG is working with students across the U.S. to create 1,000,000 handmade bones, which will be part of an exhibition on the National Mall in Washing­ton, D.C. The Fine and Performing Arts Depart­ment hosted and provided supplies for this event and students created approxi­mately 350 clay bones.

West African drumming by Sayon Camara, an accomplished djembefola musician, and the Landaya Ensemble was one of the week's most thrilling events. The energetic rhythms had people of all ages on their feet and dancing. It was a joyful evening for all, especially for the performers and our African international students, who created the feel of an African village here on campus.

This year's events took place in the Sawyer Fine Arts Center, and a photography exhibition in the Curb, “Africa My Africa,” served as a backdrop and unified the entire program. This collection of images, taken by community members who have traveled, studied or lived in Africa, displayed the variety of cultures, peoples and landscapes of the continent. The photographs, combined with statements from the photographers about what the images meant to them, told stories of Africa different from those we typically see and hear.

Doug McKenna '12 spent a semester in Kenya and Tanzania with the School for Field Studies as part of his Environmental Science major, and his statement summed up the exhibit, and all of International Education Week, for me: “The relaxed pace of life in East Africa gave me a chance to reassess my priorities and to realize that the frantic mindset of Western culture is not necessary to get the most out of life…Traditional African ways of life con­tinue to live on [on the savannahs of East Africa], and these people [the Maasai]…have a lot to teach people of the West, if only we could slow down enough to listen to what they have to say.”