There are many stories of JMU students and alumni who take to heart the challenge to "Be the Change." A small group of students visiting the university this fall agreed to live this motto from day one of college.
Nine first-year students from the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa are participating in their school's Leadership for Change program. Part of the program is a two-week exchange whereby the UFS students live in another part of the world to understand the academic, social, cultural and residential lives of students at other universities. JMU's resident advisors have been hosting the students during their stay.
The UFS students come from a university with approximately 30,000 students, set in a rural location, not unlike how you would describe JMU. In 2008 attention was drawn to UFS for a racial incident that uncovered continued problems with integration at the school. UFS Director of Housing and Residence Affairs Quintin Koetaan, who accompanied the students to JMU, said, "The president, Jonathan Jensen, identified the lack of leadership among students that needed to be addressed so that we as a university can move away from issues of integration and diversity. Instead of focusing on the current leadership, we focused on the incoming leadership."
Leadership for Change, a yearlong program for first-year students, aims to develop participants' ability to better integrate their University through dialog and engagement.
The UFS program has grown dramatically, from 70 participants last year to nearly 150 in 2011. Group leader Vusi Mesatywa said, "Our students from South Africa were sent to JMU to be exposed to the diversity, citizenship and other engagement issues that universities deal with all over the world."
Introducing JMU JMU director of residence life, Maggie Evans, received an email from Koetaan in August asking if JMU would be interested in hosting nine UFS students from Sept. 25 to Oct. 6. Evans lined up RAs as hosts and went to work on building the itinerary based on the learning outcomes provided by UFS. Koetaan, who had visited JMU on a U.S. tour in the spring, said, "I wanted to bring the students here because I could sense that we could learn something from Maggie and the residence life program."
The UFS students spent their time at JMU shadowing their host students, attending International Week seminars and programs and participating in classes specifically designed for them such as "American Culture."
When asked to reflect on their experience, UFS students noted how many students have school spirit, how secure students here feel and how willing everyone was to help them. "I love how friendly the JMU people are," said Sherilyn Roelofse. "You walk up to any JMU student and they will help you with a smile."
UFS freshman Antoinette Offerman learned more than just subject matter from attending her host's classes. "I really enjoyed the interactive aspect of the classes offered at JMU," said Offerman. "Back home, my health sciences courses are not as hands-on and I hope to share ideas on how we can incorporate interactive activities at UFS."
"I've been so impressed with their enthusiasm both for the fun parts of the schedule and the work part of the schedule," said Evans. "The students were just as excited about shadowing their hosts in class or attending a debate on womens' roles in the Middle East as they were to attend their first college football game or tour of Washington, D.C."
Cross-Cultural UFS is ready to expand Leadership for Change to become a true exchange program. "We are starting the conversation about having students come visit South Africa for 10 days where we can share the leadership program from a different angle," said Koetaan. Although there are many details to be worked out, Evans and the RAs are definitely interested in visiting UFS.
Village RA Ronald Steward said, "People have these preconceived notions about other cultures, but in the end, you donít know much about other cultures until you experience it."
"This experience has been so interesting and enriching," said Chelisse Perry, an RA in the Bluestone area. "I hope to visit the students in South Africa next year so that the learning experience is reciprocated and we can gain more insight into their culture."
Lessons Learned Koetaan is astonished about the transformation in his students over the course of 11 days from quiet, intimidated first-time travelers to worldly, joyous, insightful leaders. "During our debriefings, the answers and feedback they are providing are vastly different from what you expect from a freshman. They are answers that would make a senior leader really think," said Koetaan.
Many of the South African students want to "take-back" what they have learned to UFS. The students want to increase their school pride and think the confidence they have gained by visiting JMU will help them do it. "Iíve learned so much about confidence when dealing with executives and people higher up," said Offerman. "I am more assertive with my thoughts and actions and my confidence has blossomed."
The UFS students were not the only ones to learn from the exchange program. JMU junior Alyson Fox, an RA in the Village area, said, " It was cool to get a new and fresh perspective from the UFS students, especially on leadership, to be reminded of what a good leader does, so that I can reapply that to my job and my life at JMU."
By Paula Polglase, Public Affairs Associate
Video by Makenzie Walter, Public Affairs intern