Williams in Africa relaunch planned

While the Williams in New York program faces potential termination, Williams in Africa (WiA) may be reinstated as soon as next fall, ending a two-year suspension that resulted from a lack of administrative support. A committee of faculty and administrators has been holding meetings to research and discuss a series of proposals for institutionalizing the program, which will grow to include a study away initiative, summer internships and a one-year fellowship.

The committee, called the WiA Study Group, hopes to offer some pilot opportunities in 2009-10. They anticipate that the WiA study abroad program may officially begin in the fall of 2010, at the earliest.

“The program is not likely to get approved in time for next year’s budget, but you never say never in these cases,” said Coordinator of Experiential Education Paula Consolini, who chairs the committee on WiA.

Consolini noted that the committee has developed a proposal for a study away program in Cape Town focused around on social justice, which will immerse students in South African politics, society and development while cultivating field research skills.

At the last meeting, held on Sept. 22, the committee discussed ongoing research of programs in South Africa. The next meeting will be in a few weeks, at which point the committee plans to discuss possible approaches for reinstatement, schedule meetings with other groups and work on getting the word out about the program.

“Because of the research that was done by the committee, we’ve been able to find a combination of programs in Cape Town that will partner extensively with the Economic Policy Research Institute along with the University of Capetown,” Consolini said. “Since the program was put on hiatus in spring 2007, we’ve been looking at different partners and what we need to do to make sure the mutual expectations are realistic.” The fieldwork partners that have been identified include non-profits and groups that focus on antipoverty policy research.

The initial WiA program, which ran for the 2006-07 academic year, did not encompass a study away program; it was solely an outlet for internships, fellowships and a Winter Study exchange with students at the Market Theatre Lab in Johannesburg. It was developed by David Eppel, former academic director of the Multicultural Center (MCC), professor of theatre and a native of South Africa. His two-year term as director of the MCC ended last year, leaving a void in the administration of the program.

“David Eppel really hit the ground running with the program in 2006,” Consolini said. “Since [Eppel] moved out of his role, the program needed continuity. It hadn’t been institutionalized, and we didn’t have the people in place to make it institutionalized.”

The program in Africa faces several administrative hurdles. “We see challenges in South Africa that we don’t see in other programs,” Consolini said. Among those obstacles cited are tensions in society and extreme rates of poverty and crime as a result of the nation’s transition from apartheid to civil democracy. These difficult realities hit home during Winter Study in 2007 when two Williams students were mugged in a restaurant in South Africa.

The proposed study away component needs additional curricular approval, and thus might take longer to initiate. “The work that would supplement the curriculum, such as summer internships and faculty-led field research, won’t have the same administrative and procedural hurdles,” Consolini said. “Our hope is that we can pull those pieces together as quickly as possible.”

This past summer members of the committee went to South Africa to explore programs already in place. In addition, the committee plans on acquiring student input from those who have already participated in programs in Africa. “We plan on getting more extensive input this fall from students, and faculty as well,” Consolini said. The input may be in survey form, or in focus groups.

Carl Vos ’09 studied in South Africa for five months last spring, and feels that traveling there was an invaluable experience. “South Africa is leading the transformation of the continent, and the lessons I learned extend to the entire world,” he said. “One of my professors in Africa told me that South Africa is a microcosm of the issues across the globe – there are developed worlds crashing into undeveloped worlds.”

Vos admitted that crime was prevalent in the country, but emphasized that “the benefits outweigh the drawbacks,” calling his semester there “the greatest experience of my life.”