Shoulder to shoulder
A South African ‘Dialogue’ takes cultural immersion to a new level
January 1st, 2014
The typical global experience for college students goes something like this: A crew of youthful idealists from the U.S. flies into a developing nation to show the locals how to function more effectively in the modern world. It’s a noble endeavor. The need is real and the intentions are pure. But there is also a hint of cultural paternalism whenever the cavalry of American benefactors gallop into town.Under the leadership of Dennis Shaughnessy, Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute has turned this awkward dynamic on its head. When Northeastern students fly to South Africa as part of the university’s Dialogue of Civilizations program, they form consulting teams consisting of two Americans and two South Africans from a local business school. Their task: to help small businesses thrive.As students at a school founded to provide a free education for the nation’s poorest citizens, the two South Africans on the consulting team grew up in the same grinding poverty as the entrepreneurs they are trying to help. So not only are the American students working cooperatively with South African students, the mixed-nationality consulting teams help eliminate some of the social tensions that can arise in such programs.
“Working alongside the South African students was a huge help because they knew far more about where our clients were coming from,” says Kelly Ward, SSH’13, who completed her degree requirements with the July trip. “We had to develop trust because we were asking these people to share their finances with strangers from another country. It made all the difference that we weren’t just a bunch of Americans flying in to give them advice—that we were a team of both Americans and locals.”
While this approach takes global service to a new level through cultural immersion, it’s not the only such program at Northeastern.
In the College of Engineering, for example, assistant dean Richard Harris took a Dialogue program to Cameroon for the first time this summer, teaming up Northeastern students with students from Cameroon Christian College. Working in groups of one American and two African students, they developed solutions to a host of water, agricultural, and transportation issues facing the West African country.
Shaughnessy says that it’s rare for American undergraduates to work “shoulder to shoulder” with local students to address the problems of the host nation, and he says the model ensures a more lasting impact for the host country.
“Our field partners in South Africa and the Dominican Republic work long term on the issues that we address in the short term,” he says. “It’s not like when [the Americans] come in and put in a water pipe, then a year later the water pipe breaks and you have to ask, ‘What was accomplished?’”
One of the initial concerns for Adam Fishman, DMSB’14, was that the South African students would naturally defer to the Americans. He was relieved to find this wasn’t the case. In fact, since only half of the American students were business majors, the South African students sometimes brought more specific business knowledge to the table, according to Ward, who graduated with a degree in international affairs and a minor in psychology.
“Both of my South African partners were business whizzes and I wasn’t,” says Ward. “I was more specialized in marketing communications. So if I had been by myself, the services I provided would not have been as good. We had complementary skills.”
Working with the students from TSiBA (the Tertiary School in Business Administration) also helped the Northeastern students avoid the unintentional cultural misunderstandings that can arise when young Americans serve as consultants in a foreign country.
“For example, we’re taught to look people in the eye,” says Laura Mueller-Soppart, SSH’14, a fifth-year economics and political science major. “But in the Xhosa culture, they are taught that looking away is a sign of respect. So when we’d be having a conversation and it got tense, an American would be looking for eye contact but a South African will be polite and look down.”
In this way, the partnership with South African students furthers one of the primary goals of the Northeastern Dialogues program, which is to go beyond “academic tourism” by creating a genuine cultural exchange. Shaughnessy notes that several of the TSiBA students are homeless, while others live in tin-roofed shacks with no indoor toilets or running water. But those who finish the TSiBA program are guaranteed a job, often with companies like J.P. Morgan Chase and Microsoft.
“We are watching these students cross over the bridge from poverty to affluence,” he says. “That can be a powerful experience for Northeastern students.”
For Fishman, who grew up in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, the culture shock was startling. “For the seven months before the trip, I had been on co-op at a New York investment bank,” he says. “I went from a 40th-floor office overlooking Manhattan to the ground floor in a South African township.”
Climbing Out of Poverty
Although apartheid was abolished in 1991, intense segregation and poverty remain. For the black and mixed-race South Africans who live in the townships, home is an ocean of several hundred thousand slapped-together shacks.
This is the environment into which teams of Northeastern and South African students fan out to do their work. Ward’s team worked with a woman to establish a nutrition business, helping her develop a marketing plan, a pricing scheme, and a lesson plan she could give to clients. Another group worked with a baker who had no system for separating her business expenses from her personal expenses.
As grim as the odds may seem, the program works. With just two used computers, one client started an Internet cafe in a million-person slum. “He now owns 40 cafes, drives a BMW, and has a new house in the slum he originally came from,” says Shaughnessy.
While many of the businesses are what you would expect—sewing clothes, cooking food for construction workers—others are more surprising. One man conducts tours of the slums for British tourists and college groups, while another raises worms in recycled garbage, then mixes the worms’ manure with liquid and sells this “worm tea” as fertilizer.
Tea With Tutu
In addition to their work in the townships, Shaughnessy’s students receive rather remarkable inside access to South African culture.
One of the life-changing moments for Ward was meeting Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist who spent 26 years in prison and shared a jail cell with Nelson Mandela.
“We had read his book, No Bread for Mandela, and now, here we were listening to him tell us stories in person that most people only get to read about,” says Ward.
Just prior to that visit, the group visited Robben Island, the Alcatraz of South Africa, to visit the cell that Mandela and Kathrada shared. It was a moving experience, especially for the TSiBA students, who grew up in the wake of apartheid and for whom Mandela is George Washington and Martin Luther King rolled into one.
“It was an hourlong boat ride back from Robben Island and the South African students just broke into songs in their native language,” recalls Fishman. “They sang the whole way back. It’s one of the most joyful things I’ve ever seen.”
Undoubtedly the most remarkable moment was the group’s half-hour personal audience with Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu.
Although the 82-year-old archbishop grants very few visits these days, he agreed to meet with the Northeastern students as a favor to a TSiBA student he had taken in as a way to help her complete her college education. The student, Keke Mohasi, had such a positive experience with Shaughnessy’s class the previous year, she wanted to “pay it forward” by doing something in return for Northeastern.
“Working with the Northeastern students was incredible,” she says. “I didn’t think we could become such good friends. They are such open-minded people, who are ready to learn, explore, and know.”
The meeting had a profound impact on the Northeastern students.
“That was the highlight of my year,” says Mueller-Soppart. “Tutu was so charismatic and open with us.”
During tea, Tutu spoke to the students about the role of the United States as the world’s last superpower and the responsibility and privilege that comes with that position. He acknowledged that poverty and racism still exist in South Africa, but also urged the students to take a hard look at their own country, asking them how the situation in the Trayvon Martin case, which was international news at the time, could happen in a country like America.
But what was most impressive, according to several of the students, was how warm and personable he was.
“He won the peace prize because of his ability to communicate with anyone, whether they are in power or have no power at all,” says Mueller-Soppart. “He can make Bill Clinton laugh and can make us laugh. Being able to witness that ability firsthand was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
As for Mohasi, she doesn’t intend this to be an isolated incident of paying it forward. She said her experience in the TSiBA program and working in the townships as part of Shaughnessy’s consulting groups convinced her to dedicate her career to helping others make the transition out of poverty.
“I think when you have walked a certain journey and manage to find a direction for where you want to go, it’s really important to make sure you don’t walk alone,” she said. “Instead, look out for a brother or sister who is walking on a similar path and give them a piece of advice on how they can win.”