Students in Minnesota Learn from Students in South Africa

In January of 2012 I traveled to South Africa with the Symphony Orchestra of Gustavus Adlophus College, which is located in Saint Peter, Minnesota. I am a professor of studio art at the college and had traveled to South Africa a number of times in prior years as the teacher of travel courses and as an artist.  I was recruited by the college to teach a three week on campus course for the members of the Orchestra prior to their concert tour to South Africa, I was also to travel with the group.  My personal goal was to work toward creating an educational experience that would enrich their understanding of the country and to connect them with its history and people.

As I started to prepare the course I was shown an itinerary by the tour director outlining the events and places we would go to while in South Africa. I immediately knew there were some major parts missing which would be critical if our students were to be able to connect with their experience in South Africa on a more personal and deeper level.  The itinerary was filled with the typical tourist fare for travelers to South Africa, including butterfly reserves, game drives, the Waterfront in Cape Town, seal colonies, botanical gardens, etc.…  it was not something I could partake in with any level of passion and I knew I would need to bow out from teaching the course if these were to remain the experiences that would be offered to our students. Dr. Ruth Lin, the conductor of the Orchestra, was in complete agreement with me regarding the need to re-design the experience for her students and to offer them the opportunity of experiencing a broader understand of South Africa. I believed they should visit a public school in a township because all of our students understand the value of education and some were planning on becoming teachers and educators.

I contacted Kevin Winge, who was at the time the executive director of Open Arms of Minnesota. I did not have any contacts in Cape Town and needed some assistance in setting up a school to visit in one of the townships, I was sure Kevin would be the person who would know the people to put me in touch with for visiting a school.  My goal was to allow our students to gain some insight regarding where their lives were in relation to a larger global picture.  Additionally I felt it important to provide our students with the chance to serve others so they might experience how much one is personally enriched by experiencing the gift of seeing oneself as a part of a very large global community. Kevin recommended a visit to  the John Parma School in the township of Guguletu Through his work in Cape Town, Kevin knew Noxie Totoyi, a teacher at the school who was able to assist us in the arrangements.

On the morning of the site visit I had the orchestra students prepare the boxes of school supplies, books and coats that we had required them to bring with them to distribute while on their concert tour in South Africa.  We left our hotel in Cape Town and traveled to the John Parma School in our tour buses, we were scheduled to preform at a different school later that morning and were traveling to that school the Tembuletu School, after our stop at the John Parma School.  Upon arriving, approximately 60 of our students were greeted by children with bright smiles and welcoming spirits.  We were welcomed to walk about the grounds of the school, where many witnessed – for the first time – the challenges that exist through unequal funding for education. The students from Gustavus Adolphus College were humbled and appreciative of the opportunity to meet, even briefly with the children and staff.  Our students only regretted that they could not have stayed longer. The classrooms were orderly but overflowing and books were obviously in short supply. It was only after this first visit to a typical township school that our students fully understood why they had been required to carry in their suitcases five pounds of supplies and a child’s coat.  After the visit to the school they were appreciative of having been required to bring the supplies and understood why I had found it an important element of the course. For 95% of our students their reflection paper about their experiences in South Africa identified meeting the children in the schools as the most important aspect of their trip.

Upon returning to campus the Gustavus Orchestra held a home concert of the music they had performed while on tour in South Africa.  The Orchestra, with the guidance of Dr. Ruth Lin, decided to have the concert be a fundraiser for the John Parma School. The donations given provided the money needed to purchase one entire classroom with coats for their school uniforms.   This coming Spring we hope to be able to fund another classroom of coats through ongoing efforts of the grassroots “Starfish” project, located in the community office at Gustavus Adolphus College, the projects raises funding for educational and living needs for those that can use a helping hand. 

We wish to give a big thank you to Noxie at the John Parma School, Jane Letourneau and Kevin Winge at the Acacia Global organization, and all the children and staff at the John Parma School for allowing us to visit the school and to allow us to be a part of something beyond our personal borders.  

Professor Lois Peterson
Gustavus Adolphus College
Saint Peter, Mn