For many educators in the United States, something big is missing from their curricula and scholarship. That “something” is Africa — more specifically, a modern, realistic, and reciprocally fruitful connection to the countries of the continent.

For many leaders and educators in Africa, a problem persists with making valuable, mutually beneficial connections with global scholarship and partnership opportunities. According to the 2023 Africa Sustainable Development Report, strategic partnerships will be “essential if African countries are to achieve transformative change and ensure that no one is left behind.”

Pursuing such meaningful connections, a group of Virginia Tech faculty members, graduate students, and Virginia schoolteachers spent a month in East Africa meeting with educators and leaders of organizations and institutions across Tanzania and Kenya.

As part of the university’s celebration of International Education Week, members of that educators’ group will be sharing what they learned during a panel discussion from 4-5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 14, in the Lury and Barbara Goodall Room in Newman Library and on Zoom.

The educators were part of the inaugural cohort of the East Africa Summer Institute for Educators. Developed by the Global Education Office, part of Outreach and International Affairs, the institute was led by Tom Hammett, professor of sustainable biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

“Through our time in East Africa, we’ve seen the specific challenges and solutions Tanzanians and Kenyans are focusing on and addressing,” he said. “Through our presentation, we want to show strategies for Virginia Tech educators and researchers to partner with universities and nongovernmental organizations in East Africa.”

African immersion

The institute, supported by a Fulbright-Hays grant from the U.S. Department of Education and the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, aims to address three needs through the lens of curriculum development:

  • According to research, U.S. public education lacks modern and unbiased information and representation of Africa’s nations and people. On the college level, U.S. engagement in student exchange and study abroad in African nations also lags behind other areas.
  • When U.S. educators and researchers look to engage East African partners and share East African perspectives, they will need fluency in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, an integral part of research and education conversations in East Africa.
  • U.S. colleges and universities have few joint publications and intercultural research partnerships with colleagues in Africa.

The initial cohort consisted of six faculty members and two graduate students from Virginia Tech and four Virginia-based high school educators. They spent four weeks traveling through Tanzania and Kenya, staying with host families, meeting with educators from prominent institutions in both countries, and learning from local organizations’ sustainability work.

“The learning that occurred on this program often centered on quite difficult issues, meaning that the four weeks were intense, taxing, and at times emotional, requiring a high level of trust and grace within the group. The extraordinary compassion and mutual support among the members was key in allowing them to have difficult conversations and connect fully with fraught historical and cultural topics. The work they have been engaging in since their return shows just how deep and valuable this learning was,” said Theresa Johansson, director of the Global Education Office. 

Adding depth

The Nov. 14 roundtable discussion will provide a glimpse into the months of work the group has done after returning to the U.S. Each person is working on a significant curriculum project — developing study abroad opportunities for high schoolers, for example, or creating a universitywide resource for educators and researchers traveling to East Africa.

“We each are developing something that we know can be a great benefit to our students and faculty across the disciplines,” said Rob Emmett, associate director for interntational programs with the Cranwell International Center. “While each project is unique and crafted to meet the needs of specific learners, as a group we’re seeking richer intercultural connections where East African voices and perspectives can inform learning about how together we can work toward the sustainable development goals, or global goals.”

In the Rhizome Living‐Learning Community, for example, students are already beginning to experience the implementation of one participant’s project.

AAD1204: Thinking Globally is a one‐credit course required of all first‐year students living in that community. For his East Africa Summer Institute project, Rhizome’s program director, Grant Hamming, redesigned this course entirely.

His experiences in Tanzania and Kenya guided the overhaul. He used case studies and real-life examples from people and organizations he interacted with in East Africa. His students are now using these as models to create a dossier on a country and nongovernmental organziation pair of their choosing.

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