Emily Hooper, Dan Pneuman & Orlando Williams | Contributing Writers & Staff Writers
When students arrive at SUNY Oneonta, they come with the desire to gain the most from their college experience. As students walk through the pillars during convocation, they hope to walk up the hill having gotten the most out of their time here. The recent cancellation of the Ghana Learn and Serve January Intercession Program is making students question the value of their experiences upon graduating. They wonder about the college’s commitment to diversity, its understanding of equity, and its commitment to its own mission of “promoting intercultural knowledge” and “integrative learning applied in real world settings” as laid out in the Oneonta Strategic Plan on Diversity.
The Ghana “Learn and Serve” Program is consistently the most popular and longest running study abroad program currently hosted by SUNY Oneonta. Offered for the past six years, it has gained a great sense of permanence, more than any other short term study abroad course offered by this college. About 30-35 students regularly apply to attend, but only 18 are able to participate. This program is not only advertised on this campus’ Office of International Education’s website, but also on sunysystemabroad.edu, a website listing all of the programs by all SUNY schools to the tens of thousands of SUNY students. Indeed, the Ghana intercession meets the Chancellor’s call for “linking international work to areas of college competence.” The intercession is rooted in a diversity core department, Africana and Latino Studies, which houses a half dozen experts in Africana studies. The Chancellor argues that international programs should not become—as quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “a thousand points of light uncoordinated,” not one-time only courses.
This past May, without warning or consultation, the office of the Provost, then headed by Dr. F. Daniel Larkin, cancelled the beloved Ghana program. Many students sent e-mails expressing shock and dismay and then met with the former Provost along with Ms. Michelle Thibault who heads the Office of Continuing Education regarding this cancellation. Dean Julie Freeman responded stating “… As the College becomes more internationally focused, more faculty and students come forward with course proposals to various regions of the world. We find this very exciting and we’re glad we are able to support them but we do have to make difficult decision sometimes in the name of equity.”
The Ghana Program is emblematic not only of the college’s Strategic Plan for Diversity, but also Chancellor Zimpher’s Strategic Plan for all of SUNY. The argument for “equity” provided by Dean Freeman seems to be based on proposals by professors and not on the needs and interests of students.
On Wednesday, August 31 at 3 p.m. 12 students, an even mix of Ghana Intercession alumni and hopefuls, met with the new provost, Dr. E. Maria Thompson. Students met to discuss the expansion of the Office of Continuing Education’s budget. This expansion would allow for the refunding of $10,500 to the Ghana program and its reaccreditation along with the subsequent grants and scholarships offered by offices such as the Alumni Association and the Office of Equity and Inclusion to participating students.
The students left with a congenial understanding of our new Provost, who took the time to greet and shake hands with every student and listened attentively with concern to all student voices. The Provost shared her experience with overseeing a study abroad program to Ghana at her previous institution, stating the importance of these types of programs and student support for them.
This is a Learn and Serve Program that is uniquely intersectional. We are from many majors, from Music to Fashion Merchandising to Psychology and Biology. We represent the diversity of interests that the Ghana ‘Learn and Serve’ Program fosters and caters to so incredibly well. Students develop projects with professors that correlate with their majors and interests and furthers their career aspirations, as many of the e-mails from alumni have indicated to you both. Dr. O’Mara and Dr. Souza work very hard to develop valuable and pertinent learning experiences for their students. Students have gutted a building to rehabilitate for a library, interviewed models, textile and fashion designers, taught classes in schools for a day, built a windmill, made bricks for a village clinic and shadowed/helped nurses, pharmacists and doctors in hospitals.
This is in addition to attending fascinating lectures by world renowned engineers, painters, filmmakers, composers, theologians, and sustainable environmental experts. Students visited and stayed at the University of Cape Coast and KNUST, at Elmina and Cape Coast Slave Castles, a Liberian refugee camp and the last home (and archive) of Dr. W.E.B.DuBois, and received drumming and dancing lessons. It is a rare course that offers the depth of experiential, [academic] and international learning as this one. Kristine McPartlin, who attended the 2010-2011 program, stated “The opportunity to broaden my knowledge of the fashion industry on a global scale in Ghana, Africa was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I learned that passion and dedication can take anyone anywhere they want to go, despite outstanding obstacles that may hinder them. It showed me that we are all united in so many ways regardless of location or life circumstances. The idea that this program may not continue, that other students won’t get the chance to find something that may touch their lives in a profound way is a thought that weighs very heavy on my heart.”
With over 100 alumni, it is a truly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary program that attracts students of all racial, class, gender, sexual orientation and academic backgrounds. These concerns were brought to the attention of former Provost F. Daniel Larkin through email last semester but no discussion came of it.