Trip to Cameroon Builds on Drexel’s Mandela Washington Fellowship Ties
Editor’s note: Earlier this month, Adam Zahn, associate director of global engagement and strategic initiatives in Drexel University’s Office of Global Engagement and Education Abroad, visited Cameroon for the first time since working there as a Drexel student. He traveled abroad to host a workshop on civic engagement with Jennifer Britton, director of communications in the Office of University and Community Partnerships — an opportunity that arose after Drexel first started participating in the Mandela Washington Fellowship hosting young African leaders on campus three years ago.
"The Mandela Washington Fellowship provides opportunities for Drexel faculty and staff to not only engage the Fellows while here in Philadelphia, but also play a more direct role in creating positive changes with them at home. Traveling for these types of exchanges allows us to enhance our international perspective and increases our ability to foster global competence at Drexel," said Koren Bedeau, PhD, vice provost for academic programs and strategic initiatives, interim vice provost for global engagement.
Below, Zahn describes what happened on the trip to Cameroon, and what could happen at Drexel because of it.
Eight years ago, I left the United States for the first time for Yaoundé, Cameroon. I was a senior global studies major at Drexel seeking to learn more about international development and literacy in the only way that Drexel students know how to — experiential learning. For my senior capstone project, I taught at Bitamie Lucia International School, a primary school operated by the Cameroon Association for the Protection and Education of the Child (CAPEC) for youth living in the periphery of the capital city. I spent four months teaching English and mathematics. It was a lesson in humility and culture, and I never thought for a minute that I would be back in Yaounde years later as a Drexel staff member.
For a week in early August, Jennifer Britton, director of communications in the Office of University and Community Partnerships, and I traveled to Cameroon to work with Cyrielle Raingou, a Drexel Mandela Washington Fellow who had spent last summer on campus through the Mandela Washington Fellowship. Together, we hosted a four-day workshop related to building civic engagement, which was inspired by the work that Drexel does in West Philadelphia and the spirit of working together through the Fellowship, which is the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).
The Mandela Washington Fellowship empowers young African leaders through academic coursework, leadership training, mentoring, networking, professional opportunities and local community engagement. The Fellows spend six weeks learning and experiencing leadership opportunities on the college or university campus of an “Institute Partner,” which Drexel has been in the three years that the University participated in this prestigious program. This summer, the Mandela Washington Fellowship at Drexel was facilitated by Anne Converse Willkomm, assistant clinical professor and the department head of graduate studies in the Goodwin College of Professionals Studies, and the Office of Global Engagement and Education Abroad, with support from the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement.
During their time on campus, fellows have the opportunity to experience Drexel’s renowned experiential education through site visits, collaborative projects and partnership development with local organizations. By taking part in service projects on campus and across Philadelphia, the fellows join Drexel President John Fry’s mission to make Drexel “the most civically engaged university in the United States, across all three dimensions of engagement: academic, student and employee volunteerism, and institutionally-supported neighborhood investment.”
Last summer, I had instantly connected with Raingou, a documentary filmmaker who came to Drexel as a fellow, over an understanding that civic engagement and change needed to come from communities within. When she approached me about developing workshops in civic engagement and the mission of an anchor institution for University of Yaounde I students, I immediately thought of our expertise in the Office of University and Community Partnerships as the perfect collaborator for this project. We applied for a U.S. Department of State Reciprocal Exchange Grant supported by the International Research and Exchange Board (IREX), which we received earlier this year. The reciprocal exchange opportunity provides support and funding for Americans to work alongside alumni Mandela Washington Fellowship in their home countries.
Twenty participants signed up for the workshop, which was hosted at the Centre Culturel Camerounais. During the four days, participants learned about the American higher education movement for civic engagement, while defining and considering the Cameroonian context.
“Civic engagement has always been a part of our history. It just feels good to have a name for it,” one participant mentioned.
They also learned how Drexel’s anchor mission seeks to partner with its surrounding neighborhoods for economic and community development. Participants also had the opportunity to develop their own civic pathways, which Drexel students develop in their “Introduction to Civic Engagement” course and what President Fry has discussed with Mandela Fellows before.
“This program means so much to me because of its importance and relevance to our society today,” said Atabong Awung Fred, a student who participated in the workshops.
On day three, I took the participants to my old stomping grounds at Bitame Lucia International School, where the group came up with their own arts-integrated projects to teach about community, culture and family. On day four, the participants each presented a community project idea and received a certificate of completion. As a parting gift, Jennifer and I challenged the group to come up with a proposal for a civic engagement activity that we would help advise. The participants would host a day of arts-based learning in Cameroon for orphan children that do not have access to primary school education.
Participants were especially energized by the idea of identifying the public purpose of their professions, connecting their civic identities to their greater families and communities. While we were discussing how American higher education, and Drexel in particular, frames civic engagement and institutional commitment to community, they were able to name the ways that this impulse already exists in Cameroon, and that seemed to really activate their thinking.
We started the workshop by throwing a lot of new material at the group, but by the last day they were listening to one another’s presentations and engaging critically with constructive questions and feedback. In some ways, we have similar challenges when approaching how as an organization or as a professional to align towards the greater good — stifling bureaucracy and short-term defeatist thinking about what we can possibly change, and dealing with the frustrations of working in a culture that is experiencing a lot of conflict.
As a result of this trip, we hope to develop more opportunities for faculty and students at both Drexel and the University of Yaounde I to follow up on community engagement projects. We also met with the dean and department head of University of Yaounde I’s Department of Art and Archaeology to discuss the development of a Global Classroom to take place in the next academic year between our students to continue discussions and collaborations around arts-based development.
While Drexel has over 90 partners in research and exchange, the hopeful outcome of this project is to develop an international network of partners and collaborations through which civic engagement and community partnership is the driver. This was Drexel’s first partnership with the University of Yaounde I. I personally can’t wait to see what happens next.