Stellenbosch’s lessons for living together

Among the grand old buildings of Stellenbosch University, the brightly coloured Listen, Live & Learn (LLL) village on the main campus stands out. The cluster of 15 three-storey student houses seems to say: We are here to do things differently.

The university’s LLL programme was introduced in 2008 with the goal of preparing students to become “agents of change” in society.

A number of freestanding student houses on campus and sections of existing residences were incorporated under the programme, which has been extended with the building of the village, completed earlier this year.

This fits in with university’s stated aim of delivering graduates who are not only “dynamic professionals” and “well-rounded individuals” – traditionally the result of any good university education – but also “engaged citizens” with “inquiring minds”.

Students can apply to live in an LLL house from their second year onwards. Each house accommodates four to 10 students of deliberately diverse race, gender, nationality and field of study.

Guiding themes
Each year every house gets a new guiding theme, such as “gender equality”, “sustainable development”, “leadership” or “education”. This is unpacked in detail as the year progresses.

Residents are required to have at least one meal a week together, giving them a glimpse into each other’s family lives and ways of preparing food.

Sharing food also creates a space to express and receive appreciation for the effort that goes into preparing a meal.

They are encouraged to invite guests, and prominent figures in South African society have been welcomed to these dinners.

“This village is one of the most successful social integration projects at SU,” says Mathew Smorenburg, the LLL co-ordinator, “because it brings people from different backgrounds together. It embodies the concept of bridging social capital.”

New leader
Smorenburg is 27, young enough to be in touch with the expectations and fears of students. But, as one of a new generation of leaders at the university, he also commands the respect and support of more experienced academic staff members.

“It is wonderful that the LLL programme is bringing people together in a town which has historically been seen by some as dividing,” he says.

The university, known as Maties, has been under pressure to transform as well, and there has been some progress. In 1990, the year of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, Maties had fewer than 800 black students. Now the figure is more than 9 000, about a third of the student body.

Mathew Smorenburg and the LLL student dwellings. (David Harrison, M&G)

Residences have long been open to all students but a new resident placement policy was implemented last year to intensify diversity and speed up integration. It is in this context that the LLL programme “is like the university’s overall approach to student housing and communities on steroids”, Smorenburg says.

For Ellen Ovenden, a postgraduate genetics student, living in the LLL village has brought the realisation that she was not as free from prejudices as she had thought.

“Before I came here, I had friends from all race groups and I thought I was progressive. However, being friends with somebody is quite different to living with them,” she says.

‘Clearing’ sessions
Difficulties are addressed during regular “clearing” sessions – housemates have discussions on a variety of topics that could lead to conflict if not addressed timeously.

“At first, these sessions felt forced,” Ovenden says. “But it has become a necessary part of living with such a diverse crowd. We all have different political and religious views.”

According to Smorenburg, there are many hubs of critical engagement elsewhere on campus, but these do not necessarily lead to constructive dialogue.

“In the LLL houses, you cannot escape or avoid issues. Living here requires one to see value in ongoing dialogue.”

Each student gets their own bedroom, but everything else is shared – from the open-plan kitchen, dining room and lounge to the two unisex bathrooms.

Architectural integration
The houses’ front doors open on to an open-air spine, with coloured arches and columns running through the village.

This walkway is used by both LLL students and other students moving around campus, which promotes integration.

The issues that are discussed and the learning experiences that take place in the houses tend to spill out to the rest of the campus. The residents come with their own network of friends and classmates, Smorenburg says, which explains the ripple effect he has seen.

“Not everyone can be accommodated in the programme but it fits in with what is happening elsewhere on campus and it promotes further change.”

Lwamba Chisaka was at Rhodes University before coming to Stellenbosch University to continue her postgraduate studies in sustainable development.

“When I arrived here, I was in a comfort zone, thinking I was liberal. But I was forced to rethink a number of things I believed about myself and others,” she says.

“You might be discussing a topic with another student and, before you know it, the other housemates as well as visiting friends and family have joined in for critical but constructive conversations. This has helped us to question and understand how we relate to others.”

The LLL programme complements what happens in the lecture hall. Professor Russel Botman, the university’s late vice-chancellor who died unexpectedly in June this year, championed the incorporation of diversity and leadership development at Maties.

“If we want our graduates to meet the challenges of the continent, we need to reconceptualise student housing,” he said when Stellenbosch hosted the Student Housing African Summit in 2010.

Smorenburg says student accommodation that encourages young people to “live and learn” together is well established in the United States, but Maties has adapted it to local needs.

“Especially in a diverse society such as ours, it is most important to listen. That’s why we added it to the mix. We placed it right at the front because, without really hearing the other person, you won’t be able to live or learn together.

“These days it is very difficult to prepare students for a specific career. We have no clue what the labour market will look like in 10 years,” Smorenburg says. “That’s why I am excited to be part of an initiative that prepares students to be self-reflective and engage constructively and sensitively with others and their world view.

“We know that societal issues cannot be solved by one discipline. Engineers need to know that sociologists play an important role in society, and vice versa. This is learned through the diversity of the LLL houses.”

Smorenburg has no doubt that the initiative works.

“This programme and the village are manifestations of Professor Botman’s pedagogy of hope. There is hope that we can bring people together and effect change.”

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