Center for Curriculum Transformation

University of Washington
Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity


Exploring Notions of Self and Other in South Africa

by Eugene Edgar, Professor, College of Education, University of Washington

Self Exploration: Dislocating Time and Space

Each year the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) Program at the University of Washington sponsors many study abroad programs that encourage students (and instructors) to examine their sense of self as a prerequisite to becoming effective leaders in addressing critical local and global issues. With Anthony Kelley, teaching assistant, I developed and led such a program in Port Elizabeth, South Africa with these student learning goals:

  1. To come to better know yourself;
  2. To increase your knowledge of South Africa;
  3. To explore the notions of justice that includes reconciliation and forgiveness; and
  4. To develop a sense of agency as a U.S. and global citizen.

The Port Elizabeth Project was the result of collaboration between CHID, the College of Education (COE), Undergraduate Academic Affairs, and the Athletic Department. The organizing topics were identity, conflict, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

The CHID philosophy developed over time as John Toews (professor of history and director of the CHID Program) and the late Jim Clowes (former associate director of CHID) expanded on their notions of identity and conflict. They suggest that U.S. students and travelers often relate to the rest of the world in a manner that uncritically assumes their own values and beliefs are universal, and thus remain unaware of the specific historical and cultural factors that have shaped their perspectives. We seldom take the time to deeply understand “the other” but rather make assumptions about their identities (their beliefs and values) and how our interactions with them are driven by these assumptions.

One way to help students address these issues is for them to spend time in another country and engage in meaningful work with communities in these countries. This tends to dislocate time (radically altering the typical flow of activities) and space (culture and the historical factors). Dislocating time and space places individuals in a disequilibrium relative to their own identities and the identities of others. By trying to reach a “shared accomplishment” with a new community of colleagues (and indeed with their own group members), individuals are more open to reconsidering their values and beliefs and are curious about the stories of others and their identities. They may listen to these new stories with an openness and humility that does not occur when they are in a known and comfortable space and when time flows in habitual ways.

Port Elizabeth Program Participants

There were 19 student participants. There were 10 women, 10 students of color, seven scholarship athletes, four who were involved in the Greek system, nine first generation college students, and six first-time out-of-country travelers. Their ages ranged from 19-25, and their status from freshman to senior. Eight different major areas of study were represented. One student had completed three previous study abroad programs and three others had experienced short-term work-study programs in other countries. I am a senior white male professor in the College of Education, and Kelly is an African American male, former scholarship athlete, and a College of Education graduate student.

The Port Elizabeth Curriculum

Anthony Kelly and I developed the curriculum for the Port Elizabeth Program using narrative as the basis for better understanding self and other. The program consisted of three components: a pre-departure seminar during Autumn Quarter 2007, the in-country experience during the Winter Quarter 2008, and a post experience reflective seminar during the Spring Quarter 2008.

Pre-Departure—Community Building: The pre-departure seminar centered on providing an introduction of South African history and current politics. The central text was Steve Biko’s “I Write What I Like” (Biko, 1978). We chose this text because of the similarity of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa with the Black Power movement in the United States. We also liked Biko’s writing style, and we knew we would be in South Africa for the 30th anniversary of Steve Biko’s death.

The pre-departure seminar began the process of community building with a focus on developing the dialogical skills of deep listening and open sharing of personal beliefs (Bohm, 1996). We stressed the need to be seriously curious about “the other” and to have the goal of understanding the other rather than persuading the other. We stressed the need for humility and openness to new ideas. The writing assignments for the students (and faculty) focused on individual personal narratives (who are you, what do you believe, how did you get to be that way, how do you want to be in the future). Students wrote a brief essay on the history and current situation in South Africa, and a brief history and current essay on the United States. We encouraged them to interact in various small groups with a focus on crossing boundaries (gender, racial, and interest). In dyads or groups of four, the students viewed movies of South Africa and gave reviews to the entire class, worked on their writing projects, engaged in peer editing, and read samples of their writing to the entire class. We also did some work on preparing to travel and live in South Africa, with some basic language instruction in Xhosa and had short presentations from students who had completed a study abroad program in South Africa, as well as from two South African students.

In-Country Experiences: During the in-country experience, South African colleagues presented 20 lectures on African culture, history, and current political conditions in South Africa. The students engaged in service learning projects in selected community placements in local townships and worked at these placements two to three hours a day for four days a week. These activities were possible given previous University of Washington projects in Port Elizabeth and the resulting community connections. These projects included after-school athletic groups, a girls group at a township high school, an after school exercise program for teachers at a township school, organizing a library and conducting individual reading groups for students, developing a drama class, developing a hip-hop dance class, and more. Field trips to rural townships, museums, and game farms were also part of the program.

The students lived together in adjoining flats that allowed for intensive ongoing interaction throughout the Winter Quarter. The instructors held two to three reflection sessions per week to debrief the lectures, community service experiences, and group dynamics. During these sessions the students shared their experiences, debated contradictions in their understanding of these experiences, and addressed inter-group dynamics. The instructors attempted to use these sessions to further teach the dialogic skills we began teaching during the fall quarter. A major emphasis during these sessions became improving the students’ interpersonal communication skills, especially around the notions of deep listening without making assumptions (asking clarifying questions, attending to body language and tone of voice, not attempting to persuade but rather understand) and using “I” messages (how one feels about a specific event) rather than assertions as to the motive of others. The goal of these sessions was to develop “shared knowledge” (Bohm, 1996), as well as to further deepen the bonds within our community.

The writing assignments for this phase of the program were: editing and updating personal narratives, developing an essay on current issues in the United States (that the students could share with South Africans), an essay on current issues in South Africa (that they could share with friends in the United States), a reflection paper on their effectiveness as a group member, and a summary of the four to five “big ideas” they learned on the trip. During the final week of the program the students read selections from these papers to the entire group.

Lessons Learned

We had anticipated that the main issue our group would have to negotiate with each other would be race, but we were wrong. The inter-group racial issues never became a major point of contention. Instead gender issues, athlete non-athlete interactions, sexual orientation, and to some extent the differences between the group members who professed deep Christian faith and the others were the main points of contention. Perhaps our pre-departure work on race helped minimize the race issues that emerged within the group. Or perhaps the racial issues within South Africa became such a focus that the group pulled within themselves for support across racial lines.

The composition of the group also may have played a part in the students’ response to issues of race. We believe that participants were able to openly deal with race because there was a critical mass of students of color within the group. The white students clearly listened to the stories of the students of color and seemed to gain a greater understanding of racism and privilege. For these and other reasons, students in this program seemed to smoothly navigate the racial differences within the group and their reflections on race indicate considerable learning.

The diverse nature of our group was a major factor in the development of self-knowledge (identity) among the students. This diversity was deliberate--we aggressively recruited students of color, males, and first generation students. NAFSA reports that 65% of all study abroad students are white and 70% are women. In our group 42% of the participants were white and 53% women. The seven student athletes added gender diversity (5 males), students of color (6) and first generation college students (4). In addition, Anthony Kelley’s involvement as teaching assistant contributed to our success in recruiting the athletes. He had participated in study abroad experiences as a UW athlete and advocated for a more supportive stance for such educational activities among the coaches. ("Linebacker discovered joy of learning," Seattle Times, January 30, 2008)

One key to recruiting a diverse group of students was the availability of financial assistance. Our collaboration with the athletic department resulted in seven scholarship athletes being included in this trip. Many of these students used their athletic scholarships to pay for program fees and their air travel was provided by the athletic department through the NCAA Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund (all in compliance with NCAA rules). We also worked very closely with the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity (OMAD) and obtained scholarship funding for two additional students of color. We energetically assisted the other students in applying for available funding. As a result four more students received partial financial assistance for a total of 13 (68%) students receiving some form of support. In addition, the Vice Provost for Global Studies, the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, and the Athletic Director energetically supported the program and worked toward obtaining financial support for the students. Working with OMAD, the Office of Global Affairs and the International Education Programs Office to obtain funding for the students was crucial. Aggressive recruiting with the promise of financial support are the key factors in developing a diverse group of students. Generating a diverse group of students for a study abroad program is possible, but it requires great effort to marshal support from various departments across the university.

Recommendations for Future Programs

Aggressively recruit diverse students for any study abroad group. This means the University needs to be pro-active in seeking funds and making them available to support the participation of students with limited income in study abroad programs. Program directors need to seek out all possible financial aid for the students.

Pre-departure seminars are very important and the focus should be on developing a learning community that is safe and where the participants have some skill training in dialogical practices.

Pay attention to strong in-group alliances prior to departure. We were caught by surprise about this and in the future we would do some preemptive work on addressing this issue during the pre-departure seminar and with individual contracts with the students.

Study abroad programs offer multiple opportunities for informal learning activities. These activities need to be encouraged and procedures need to be in place (reflective sessions) where the students can process these experiences.

We found the use of narratives, as written assignments were powerful tools for the students to help with the integration of their experiences into their self-concepts. These papers also provided a vehicle for students to share with other group members (reading from their writing) which seemed to help those students who are typically reluctant to speak in groups to share their thinking with the group.


Bohm, D. (1996). On dialogue. New York: Routledge.

Biko, S. (1978, 2002). I write what I like. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Page cite: Edgar, Eugene (2008), "Exploring Notions of Self and Other in South Africa" [online] Available:

All content copyright 2008, Center for Curriculum Transformation, Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, University of Washington, and Eugene Edgar, PhD.


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