“One thing we emphasized during the orientation is that Botswana, particularly Gaborone, can deceptively look westernized, with shopping malls and BMW dealerships,” said Stephen Volz, a history professor at Kenyon College who was visiting faculty director of the ACM Botswana: Development in Southern Africa program last year.
“I think the students may have operated under that assumption at first, but as they got to know people, the cultural differences became much more apparent,” he said. “So cultural engagement is a critical part of the program.”
Indeed, encouraging students to take every chance they get to meet and interact with people from all walks of life in Botswana is woven into the fabric of the program. They live with students from the local area in residence halls at the University of Botswana (UB) and take classes on campus, and a homestay for several days in a village outside the capital city of Gaborone provides another view of daily life.
In spring 2019, Volz will return to Botswana for a second turn as the program’s visiting faculty director. Along with teaching a course, guiding the students’ independent study projects (ISPs), and leading program excursions, he’s looking forward to again helping students arrange volunteer placements with non-profit organizations.
“The cultural engagement in these organizations is not just with people from a different culture, it’s also with people of different generations,” Volz said. “The goal is to get students off campus and to meet people who might share some of the same interests — to talk with people and to learn more about daily life and interactions in Botswana.”
For example, Volz noted, one of the students spent two mornings a week volunteering at a hospice day center that provides support for people with terminal illnesses and their families. A student interested in environmental studies volunteered with the National Tree Seed Center, an organization that collects seeds of trees that are indigenous to Botswana, selects the most robust varieties, and grows seedlings to use in reforestation projects.
Along with their coursework, students completed independent study projects (ISPs), choosing topics ranging from political activism among UB students to informal markets in Gaborone to the role of exams in secondary education. Most were able to incorporate aspects of their community engagement experiences into the projects.
“One student volunteered with an agency that promotes the rights of people with albinism, which is more frequent in Africa than in the US,” said Volz. “In her ISP she was able to highlight ways that people with albinism are discriminated against in Botswana.”
At a small grassroots organization that provides counseling for people who are HIV positive, another student learned about the methods that the counselors used in working with their clients and included that in her project.
Volz brings years of experience in Botswana to the program. His connection with the people and country stretches back to when he was a Peace Corps volunteer there, and he has been back regularly to visit friends and conduct research.
“Since I returned to school to get my Ph.D. in African history, I see it as my vocation to teach young Americans about Botswana,” he said, and directing the Botswana program in spring 2017 gave him his first chance to do his teaching on site with students. “It was a dream come true for me. Rather than just talking about Botswana, I could point out the window and show them what I was referring to.”