Williams in Africa returns after restructuring

africa childrenThe Williams in Africa (WiA) program, suspended in 2007 due to safety concerns, has returned this year following several changes made by the WiA Committee. With a fieldwork program in Uganda this past summer and a semester-long program in South Africa this fall, WiA has come back with a sharper focus and more specific projects in place. The program has started a partnership with Interstudy, a study abroad organization, and Economic Policy Research Institute (EPRI), an NGO. Four students are currently abroad on the program.

According to Paula Consolini, director of experiential education and chair of the WiA Committee, a more focused mission statement sets WiA apart from its 2007 version. According to the WiA Committee Web site, “The vision of the Williams in Africa Initiative . . . is to create a set of curricular and extracurricular programs to encourage students to engage meaningfully with the African continent.”

Michael Samson, professor of economics, serves as a director for EPRI, and it was his connection with the Institute that allowed WiA to come back in its partnership form. Samson is also working as the on-site director of the semester program, and is overseeing the Williams courses as well as the general experience of the four participants from the College. According to Consolini, Samson’s involvement contributed largely to WiA’s feasibility, as his experience in South Africa and on-site availability has alleviated safety concerns.

The expertise of Interstudy also helped reduce some of the safety issues that plagued the old program, as Interstudy has been sending college students to study in Africa since 1980 and conducts bi-annual safety reviews to ensure the protection of participants.

In the pilot semester program now underway, four students from the College are living in Cape Town and taking two University of Cape Town courses and two Williams-affiliated courses. According to Consolini, WiA will only be offered during the fall semester, though the program might take up to ten students in the future. While in South Africa, students can choose which University of Cape Town courses they wish to take from the University’s course catalog, a structure that allows students to potentially fulfill College course requirements while on WiA. In addition to their four courses, the students are also taking Xhosa language classes.

The other two courses fulfill the experiential learning criterion. One course involves an independent study with EPRI, and the other involves an EPRI-sponsored tutorial and seminar combination, in which students engage one-on-one with members of the South African parliament. Consolini cited this interaction as one of the unique parts of the program, mostly because it juxtaposes students who have little “real-world experience” and a primarily academic background with parliamentarians who have vast practical experience and a less formal academic background.

According to Lane Wang ’11, who is participating in this semester’s program, these tutorial sessions have given him the chance to meet South Africa’s deputy minister of water and forestry and the deputy minister of human settlements.

The summer program presented the first part of WiA’s reincarnation. Kiaran Honderich, professor of economics, led the trip and trained Williams students and Ugandan students for rigorous fieldwork. According to Honderich, the students reserached in the field of feminist economics, working in homes affected by HIV/AIDS and taking notes on how households coped on a daily basis.

“It was really challenging for all of us – every day, it was deeply, deeply challenging,” Honderich said. Indeed, one of the goals of the program was to expose students to the realization that they could only gain by physically working in these homes. Students lived with Ugandan families during the program, opening the participants to what Honderich called “the nitty-gritty of cross-cultural work.”

Honderich also plans to take students to Senegal this Winter Study to learn about the transportation sector. Kenda Mutongi, professor and chair of Africana studies, is co-sponsoring the program. Approximately 40 students are vying for the 10 available spots.

According to Mutongi, who has also been a key WiA Committee member, the administration probably will not conduct a formal evaluation of the program for another two to three years. However, Honderich and Samson will collect feedback from students who participated in the summer and semester programs. This feedback will determine any changes to WiA for next year. “We’re moving incrementally, we’re moving in response to demand and student interest,” Consolini said.

Committee members said there had been no major problems with the pilot programs yet, and have already begun to develop broad long-term goals for WiA. Consolini said that the Committee hopes WiA will eventually include a post-graduate fellowship. Before its suspension, the program consisted of fellowships and internships, and now the goal is to reinstate those fellowships in addition to the new core semester and summer programs.

Honderich hopes WiA will eventually offer a semester program in Uganda and Senegal, and that the Committee plans to develop networks in other African countries as well. Two new members of the Committee, Associate Dean of the College Steve Sneed and Outing Club Director Scott Lewis, have connections in Malawi and Liberia, respectively.

By expanding the number of programs, broadening the academic scope of the initiative and drawing on the resources of the faculty, the Committee hopes to increase student participation. “So many students are involved in sports or want to be JAs that they sometimes cannot commit to a full semester in Africa,” Mutongi said. “Hopefully the Winter Study and summer programs allow them to wet their feet and have that opportunity to study on the continent at some point this way.”

Consolini also cited the program as a way to cultivate in students an interest in international issues. Andrew Dominitz ’11, a student currently in Cape Town, spoke to the program’s effect. “Being here has sparked my curiosity and fueled my desire to learn more about the human condition,” he said.
Additional reporting by Cindy La Rosa, contributing writer.

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