Monday, October 31, 2016

A University Without Borders

By Edem Dorothy Ossai

Applications for the Mandela Washington Fellowship of the U.S. government has closed.  As we anticipate results enjoy stories from this year’s cohorts on their experience.

The first thing that struck me about Arizona State University was that there were no boundary walls separating the campus from the rest of the community. Right behind the law building stood the very cosmopolitan Sheraton Hotel, next to the impressive Walter Cronkite school of Journalism stood the grand Arizona Science Centre. Also a few blocks from the University student centre stood the tall glass offices of Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. I had never encountered a University without walls or borders and so I had been in the ASU Downtown Campus in Phoenix, Arizona, for well over 10 minutes without realising. It wasn’t until we got to the front of an attractive student dormitory building called Taylor Place, which would be my home for the next 6 weeks that I suddenly understood. At that point I looked at the cab driver and escort with surprise and asked “when did we go through the university gates?”

I would later discover during the course of an intense 6 weeks Fellowship experience that the absence of walls bordering ASU Downtown campus was a manifest expression of the system’s belief in the fluidity of interaction between knowledge and transforming human societies. For 6 weeks I was immersed in a progressive style of learning. During academic sessions we engaged in rich discussions and team work which yielded simple solutions. During community service we visited schools, community centres, Native American tribes, non-profits, city bureaus and offices. We also helped build houses, plant green spaces, distribute food at shelters and food banks and paint school walls. As part of our cultural exchange we ate American hot dogs, went on hiking trips, watched 4D movies, attended a 4th of July baseball game and gazed at fireworks.  However we made sure that we left behind in all the places we visited the reverberating sounds of our beautiful African philosophies, songs, drum beats and rhythms.
I gained many valuable lessons during my Fellowship experience and I would like to share 3 of them:

All over the world, there is no perfect society and no, the United States of America is not perfect. The Country has its issues and the citizens confront problems as well. However there are strong societies. Such societies reflect deeply entrenched values, a keen investment in knowledge and research, transparent and effective systems of governance and robust working economies. As is expected, such societies deliver a high standard of basic comfort to average citizens, making their borders attractive to people around the world. A lesson I gained during the Fellowship is that such societies are built and sustained through vision, effort and sacrifice. This is clear from the attitude of leaders and citizens of America to work, education and innovation, governance, community service, and the deep rooted values of freedom and opportunity. Contrary to the opinion of many, Nigeria will thrive if we imbibe the many lessons of our past as well as lessons presented by strong nations such as the United States. As young people we must first believe in the possibility and then strive to attain it through effort and sacrifice.

There is value in networking and building relationships. Our value as individuals is not limited to our personal skills or potential alone but encompasses the collective strengths of everyone who forms part of our relationship circle. The more relationships we build the more value we can claim or leverage and vice-versa. Americans are big on networking because they realise the importance of social integrative power. Through networking and relationship building we can easily share resources, discover opportunities, reduce costs, enjoy mentoring or peer review and accountability amongst other important benefits. As youths, we are currently the largest demographic on the African Continent and this is an opportunity. The more connected we are, the more resourceful we become. This implies that we can travel much farther today than any previous generation in Africa ever could.

The real value of an education is in the solutions we are able to create. We are not relevant merely because we have a university degree or we graduated with first class or second class upper honours, as many often boast. Those credits are simply presumptive labels indicating to the world what we are capable of contributing. The world will not be transformed just because we are literate or have a brilliant mind. The world will only be transformed when we take our brilliant minds and use them to create useful solutions that address current issues the world is grappling with. If we are to improve our communities and our nation we have to move beyond the current obsession with tagging ourselves as “literate”, “graduate” or “first class holder” to creating real valuable solutions. As I witnessed during my Fellowship experience, having a college degree or a fancy one at that, isn’t nearly as important as the innovative skills and critical mindset you bring to the table and how relevant those skills are to present day challenges.

Edem Dorothy Ossai was part of the Nigerian cohort to this year’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.  She was on the Civic Leadership track.  Learn more about the Mandela Washington Fellowship on the website 

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