By the end of last week, halfway through their stay in the United States, University of the Free State (UFS) students were contemplative about the diversities to which they’d been exposed.
“I’m waiting to hear what the other groups learned about race because we didn’t deal as much with that as we did with sexual orientation,” Lethu Ndlovu, a humanities student at the UFS’s Qwa-Qwa campus, told the Mail & Guardian.
Selected for UFS’s Leadership for Change programme, which the university introduced last year on the back of the notorious Reitz residence video, Ndlovu is among the students assigned to New York University (NYU).
About 150 students were chosen to visit selected universities in the US, Europe and Japan in groups of six to 12 students. The programme is designed to expose them to different cultures, lifestyles and beliefs.
“New York is the perfect place to come to learn about diversity in sexual orientation. I didn’t know the topic was so broad and so complex,” Ndlovu said. “There are so many movements within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.”
Pupils searched by police at schools
At the Business of Sports School in central Manhattan on Monday, students saw the routine police search of high-school pupils entering the building, Ndlovu said. The UFS students sat in on a class, and then discussed classroom layout, discipline and student governance with a selection of the school’s pupils.
An intense week of sessions organised by NYU students and lecturers and leaders followed, including movies about race and sexual orientation. The UFS students also went to a day care centre in Chinatown and a service at the Church of the Village, which describes itself as “radically inclusive, celebrating diversity, and are advocates for social justice in our community”.
On Saturday night at their youth hostel in Chelsea, the group’s mentor, Yeki Mosomothane, stressed the need for the students to “reflect”. He also rehearsed the deadlines for the next set of written assignments the students needed to submit to the university, including daily journal entries, essays and contributions to a blog about the group’s experience.
Some of the students told the M&G that while they found the formal sessions “very interesting and informative” they had not felt they could “really open up and be honest”.
The ‘real sharing’
The “real sharing” happened privately when the group shared rooms in their hostel, ate together, and walked the New York streets together, one student explained.
But another said the level of honesty in sessions had improved as the week went on and hoped it would continue to improve in the second week.
Mosomothane said he had assured students that they could “be themselves” and that if anyone felt they couldn’t be open in sessions then the university would look into why.
“They are learning for sure and getting a new perspective on schooling and university. They are grappling with these issues in a good way,” Mosomothane told the M&G.
“We can’t expect them to change overnight. They know they can come and speak to me about anything and we can try to resolve any issues.”
Students will board their plane back to South Africa on Thursday. The second stage of the Leadership for Change programme will kick off next year, when the students — then in their second year of study — will mentor newly arrived first-year students, develop leadership programmes for them and run volunteer programmes on campus.
Victoria John is accompanying the UFS students to the United States as a guest of the university.