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Lessons from Liberia: “What we learned in Africa stayed with us.”

Lessons from Liberia: “What we learned in Africa stayed with us.” September 6, 2012
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In the late 1960s, Beloit College graduate Louis Nosko was one of a group of people, their newly-awarded bachelor’s degrees in hand, who went to West Africa to serve as teaching assistants at Cuttington College in Liberia. Throughout their two-year assignments they worked together, lived side by side, and shared their experiences.

“Then our paths diverged and we went our separate ways,” Nosko wrote, much later. “Along those ways, what we learned in Africa stayed with us.”

Cuttington College Program participantsACM Cuttington College Program participants (from left) Carol Hoecker, Sue Oldefendt, Robert Kinsey, and Louise Croft in Liberia in the late 1960s.

They were participants in ACM’s first international program. Begun in 1963, just four years after ACM was founded, the Cuttington College Program sent faculty and recent graduates from ACM colleges to teach at the only American-style liberal arts college in sub-Saharan Africa.

Forty years after their paths diverged, the group reunited for the first time in 2009. “What came out of that gathering,” according to Nosko, “was a wonderful realization as to how much that experience had mattered in our lives.”

A program with an emphasis on service

The Cuttington reunion group participated in the program over a three-year span, from July 1966 through July 1969. Each year, a new set of several graduates arrived, overlapping with the group of “veterans” who were now beginning their second year in Liberia.

The purpose of the Cuttington College program, according to an ACM brochure at the time, was “to contribute to higher education in Africa and promote African studies in ACM colleges.”

Cuttington College gateThe Cuttington College gate.

Faculty from ACM colleges taught at Cuttington on one-year appointments. The recent graduates assisted the faculty members and Cuttington staff “as teachers, research and administrative assistants, and advisers in extracurricular activities,” the brochure continued, and got the chance “to learn about Africa at first hand.”

ACM’s first president, Blair Stewart, noted the program’s “emphasis on service and increased knowledge and understanding of non-Western cultures…. The ACM program provides a means of meeting in part the personnel shortage which will continue until a sufficient number of trained Liberians are available for positions on the staff of the college.”

The program was started up with a grant from the Ford Foundation. Stewart also pointed to ACM’s role, again with support from Ford, in helping Cuttington develop its library and establish the first microfilming facility in Liberia. When Milwaukee-Downer College merged with Lawrence College to form Lawrence University, 46,000 duplicate copies of books were donated to Cuttington.

The program ended in 1971, but remains unique in the history of ACM off-campus programs in that it was aimed at alumni rather than undergraduates. In all, 43 graduates – representing all ten of ACM’s member institutions at that time – and 15 faculty participated over program’s  span of eight academic years. The college, now Cuttington University, was closed and its buildings were heavily damaged during civil war in Liberia, but it re-opened in 1998.

Following is Louis Nosko’s account of the 40th-year reunion of Cuttington College Program alumni, which he shared with ACM earlier this year. Our sincere thanks to Nosko and his fellow alumni for this update on their remarkable experience in Liberia, and what it has meant to their lives.

The Cuttington Reunion

by Louis Nosko

I wanted to contact [ACM] again. The last time we communicated was in 2009. At that time some of us who lived and worked in Liberia for the period 1966-1969 got together for a 40 year reunion. What came out of that gathering was a wonderful realization as to how much that experience had mattered in our lives. I know that we didn’t appreciate what a wonderful program the Associated Colleges of the Midwest had offered us. Like many graduating students we looked on it as just one more step in the young adventure of our lives. But we, each and every one of us, pointed out how much that program changed us and developed us.

Cuttington College Program reunionAlumni, colleagues, and friends at the Cuttington reunion included Robert Kinsey (2nd from left), George Lang (3rd), Tom Lane (5th), Sue Oldefendt (6th), Louis Nosko (7th), Anne Guilinger (8th), and Lois Johnson Barlint (10th).

Who were we then? In July, 1967 three of us came out to Liberia from Beloit College: myself (Louis Nosko), George Lang and Carol Hoecker; Robert (Chip) Kinsey from Grinnell; Anne Guilinger from Monmouth; Susan Oldefendt from St. Olaf; and Andrea Larson from Ripon. We were sent to Cuttington College in Liberia.

There we met, worked with and lived side by side with the group that had come there the year before. There was Tom Lane from Grinnell, Lois Johnson from St. Olaf, Valerie Saems from Monmouth, and Beverly Wright from Cornell. Then at the end of our first year there, July, 1968, the next batch came out: Louise Croft from St. Olaf, Hugh and Phoebe Gray from Lawrence, and John Bachman and Janna Ginsberg from Beloit.

Each of us had carried what we learned from our major studies expecting to be teaching assistants at this post-secondary institution in West Africa. None of us realized, until we had our orientation week at the Newberry Library in Chicago, that we were not to be teaching assistants; we were to be the real thing – actual teachers, responsible for our own classes. Needless to say, none of us had ever taught before. But now we were supposed to get some courses ready, exams to conceive, essay topics to prepare.

Cuttington HouseGeorge Lang in front of Cuttington House, where program participants lived.

We had a few things going for us. There was the group of ACM graduates who were in Africa the year before we arrived and shared their experiences with us. There were a few ACM faculty participants there to add their counsel. And I may add that these professors, such as Ron Kurtz from Grinnell and Charles Nichols from Beloit, treated us with respect as fellow faculty members there. I can’t tell you how much that meant. I don’t know if any of us ever fully appreciated then their generosity and tolerance. They, along with other educators hired through Fulbright or Rockefeller Foundation funds, were there as ready examples of professional behaviour and responsibility.

Most of us worked there for at least 2 years. Then our paths diverged and we went our separate ways. Along those ways, what we learned in Africa stayed with us. We learned what it was like to live in another country and have responsibilities and duties, and to perform to the best of our abilities. The tangible feel and smell of another climate, another continent was burnished into our bodies and minds. We discovered different ways of understanding and looking at the world from the various Africans we met and interacted with: students, faculty members, college administrators, townspeople, merchants, and wonderful Peace Corps volunteers spread throughout the country. And of course, most of all, we shared our lives with those of us who had come out from the ACM schools. That sharing must have been so intense for us, that when we finally did have our reunion – forty years later – it seemed to each of us that we were resuming a conversation that had only been interrupted moments before.

We learned what it was like to live in another country and have responsibilities and duties, and to perform to the best of our abilities.

We all went our various ways.

George Lang avoided the draft, went to the University of Alberta in Canada, and was able to return to the States after the amnesty. He earned his PhD in comparative literature, taught in Alberta and in Montreal. Eventually he was Dean of Arts at the University of Ottawa, and is now happily retired, married to a professor of Iranian studies and living in Irvine, California.

Chip Kinsey returned to Iowa, studied law and is a prominent lawyer in that state. Tom Lane eventually settled in Colorado and is a wine merchant travelling to France and Italy, New Zealand and Australia. Anne Guilinger married one of our African students and she and Alex Dillibe moved to southern California. Janna Ginsberg worked for awhile in the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, and then horticulture, organic farming and her restaurant eventually brought her to the Pacific Northwest in Victoria, British Columbia.

John Bachman used his Beloit psychology degree and African experiences to return to California and work with drug dependant individuals, founding a Habit Abatement Clinic, serving as Director of the Behavioral Medicine Clinic at Stanford, and currently serving as director of a community health center. His observations and shared experiences with his fellow ACM graduates at Cuttington may have contributed to his success. Lois Johnson married and is now Lois Barlint. She maintained her love of teaching in the Chicago school system, and now is a writer. This summer she will be in a master class with Alan Gurganus and Claire Messud.

Sue Oldefendt came back to Colorado and worked as an analyst for national educational assessment, then ended up as a software engineer in Boston, and is now retired. Carol Hoecker married and became Carol Malza. For awhile she worked in epidemiological research in the Illinois public health system, but then moved into teaching and fell in love with the elementary grades. I moved to Canada and worked for awhile on an academic path leading to a PhD in Russian history, but stopped short of it and wandered off into the world of opera. I have been involved with opera costuming and opera productions for the last 35 years, all that while living and having a family in Toronto.

Cuttington College Program ReunionProgram alumni at the Cuttington reunion included George Lang (1st from left), Louise Croft (3rd), Lois Johnson Barlint (5th), Sue Oldefendt (7th), Tom Lane (8th), Louis Nosko (10th), Carol Hoecker-Malza (11th), Robert Kinsey (12th), and Anne Guilinger (13th).

I would like to offer this from Janna Ginsberg: “Being part of a small group of enthusiastic young teachers at Cuttington, in a far away land, was an exciting experience. I think we all helped each other through the rough times, and we all learned a great deal about life and the people we lived among.”

I know that we all had a good grounding at our respective ACM colleges that served us well at Cuttington. I know that I, personally, learned so much from the teaching style of Robert Irrmann at Beloit, and that I tried, in some pathetic way I’m sure, to use that to get me started at Cuttington.

Upon graduation from college many, maybe most students, pursue their careers through graduate studies. We did do that, but we first had an exciting learning experience grounded in responsibility for others. It was that experience, offered to us from the ACM, that we enjoyed and shared with our fellow ACM graduates.

Photos are courtesy of the Cuttington College Program 40th Reunion participants.


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