As I write this column, my thoughts are running ahead to the journey to United International College in Zhuhai, People’s Republic of China, that Anne and I will begin Nov. 10 with our colleagues, Per Anderson (associate dean for Global Learning) and Lisa Sethre-Hofstad (associate dean for Core and Advising). Anne and I have never travelled to China before, and so we have heads full of words and images that we know will be changed once we meet our international colleagues, who have undertaken the “bold experiment,” as they have said, to create and sustain the first liberal arts college in China.
I am struck today with how little I know of the people we will meet, though already I know of their intellectual courage and their kind hospitality. Feeling keenly my limited knowledge draws my mind to an event last night at Concordia, an event organized by students with support from faculty, an event that also had to do with what we do and don’t know about far-flung parts of the world.
Held in the Centrum before a highly engaged crowd of people from Concordia, MSUM and NDSU, the gathering was titled “New Afrique: Rebranding Africa Beyond Stereotypes.” After an opening reminder from Professor Zacharie Petnkeu of the ways in which colonialism divided Africa and erased so much of its past, our students stepped on stage to speak, dance and enact a vision of Africa far different from the one that dominates our news in the United States: the familiar stories of civil strife, AIDS, cruel dictatorship and starvation, stories of an Africa that needs to be rescued.
Our African students, though not at all dismissing the struggles of Africa’s 54 countries on the second-largest continent in the world, told us of a place we have all too seldom heard about. It is a place of poets and playwrights, of universities and cities of great history, beauty, and art. It is a place of other “bold experiments”: in democracy, in multi-ethnic community, in truth and reconciliation.
What did their effort last night have to do with college? Everything. College affords us a space both challenging and safe in which to give ourselves to learning what our lives and the lives of others are in truth. College gives us the chance both to see things as they are and to dream of them as they should be.
In the end, the theme of New Afrique last night was learning. It was education—as one student said, the building up of the self and the building up of the community. Education leads us out, out to see the world not as we have been told it is but as it is in truth, and out to imagine what that world can be if we look beyond ourselves to the lives of others. How lucky we are to live and learn in such a place, becoming day by day more responsibly engaged in the world.