Who would guess that college students in a small village at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania would be able to benefit from the library resources of the University of Maine at Presque Isle?
It happened, and an innovative online course connecting two universities — one in Africa and one in northern Maine — emerged as a result.
Shirley Rush, associate professor of social work at UMPI, wanted to dedicate her 2013 sabbatical to developing the framework for an international academic exchange program that would provide reciprocal experiences for foreign and UMPI students.
She had been taking her students on trips to Guatemala and to the United Nations in New York since 2008, using funds the students raised themselves. Then she asked where else they might like to visit.
“They all wanted to go to Africa,” she said. “They promised to fundraise.”
Concerned about safety and health issues in some regions, Rush researched options and selected Tanzania, working initially through Cross-Cultural Solutions, a private organization that helped with travel arrangements.
“I fell in love with Tanzania,” she said of her first trip in 2011 with five students and one alum. The connections she made and people she met enabled her to plan two more UMPI student trips herself, and the seeds for ongoing collaboration were planted.
She has since made eight trips to the African nation in all, including a 30-week sabbatical from June 2013 to early January 2014.
When Rush was awarded the UMPI Trustee Professorship Sabbatical in 2013, she had a plan: to explore the possibility for an exchange program and to teach courses at Stefano Moshi Memorial University College, which has campuses in Moshi Town, Mwika and Masoka.
During her sabbatical, she taught communication skills and sociology at the Mwika campus and sociology and poverty analysis in the department of community development at Masoka.
“Both Mwika and Masoka are very small, rural villages nestled at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro under a misty cloud cover,” Rush said. “Unlike traditional libraries on college campuses in the U.S., the libraries on these campuses were routinely filled with students.They even used the books in the stacks. This may be due to the fact that few students have textbooks available to them.”
It occurred to Rush that any research the students might do for their written assignments for her classes would likely rely on dated materials. To resolve this shortcoming, she scheduled three students at a time to access the library at UMPI using her laptop computer.
“Remember, we were located at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro,” she said. “The best Internet reception could be found in front of the men’s hostel [dormitory]. Conveniently, we were also able to reach an electric outlet.”
Nonetheless, power failures were common and access to the Internet unreliable, with frequent “drops,” affectionately called “network problems.” Three by three, students met with Rush outdoors on the sidewalk, partially shaded from the equatorial sun, depending on the time of day.
“My computer was on a small wooden table surrounded by four folding chairs. I was logged into my UMPI library link and from there I was able to teach them how to access electronic scholarly journals.” Each student was able to find an article relevant to the topic he or she had chosen to research, topics such as micro-credit for women in Tanzania and macro-perspectives of social work.
Since few students had email accounts or even computers, Rush saved the articles on her USB thumb drive and printed them out at a stationery store in Moshi. At the next class, the students received hard copies of the articles they had chosen to use for their research.
“They were so delighted to have a world opened to them that they didn’t have before,” Rush said. “They were affirmed, so encouraged. Library access is a bridge from where they are to where they want to go.”
This experience prompted Rush to propose an online course for four volunteers from the Stefano Moshi Memorial University College class. The students deliberated among themselves to select the representatives: three young men and one woman.
“At the conclusion of my sabbatical and with the approval of the administrations of both universities, I returned home to design and deliver a hybrid course to these four students.”
In 2014, four students in Tanzania enrolled in the pilot course taught from UMPI with online access to the library that enabled them to continue using their recently acquired research skills.
“They are actualizing their goals,” Rush said of the “bright, motivated” community development majors, who will graduate in November with aspirations for graduate study. Like many UMPI students, they are the first generation to attend college, and Rush said they share that “hardworking, humble Aroostook life view — no complaints, look for good and work for good.”
In 2016, the Tanzanian students may meet some of their UMPI counterparts when Maine and Canadian social work students travel to Tanzania in January and May for field placements with nongovernmental organizations serving women and families, children with disabilities and a cottage industry of deaf tailors.
“The beauty of this exchange project is that we all benefit,” Rush said. “Resources are shared. Friendships are established. Community is developed.
“With community comes hope, through education, employment and global cooperation.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.