At Rutgers University in newark students learn lessons in leadership at home and abroad

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The goal of the two-semester Urban and Cultural Leadership Seminar at Rutgers University in Newark is to show undergraduate students how to effect social change and transform city environments. But at the end of the 2007-2008 program, participants discovered that they themselves had been changed and transformed, especially by the week they spent in the African nation of Senegal.

Eight students from Rutgers University in Newark, along with eight counterparts from Penn State, spent the last week of May in Dakar, Senegal, meeting average citizens and government leaders alike – including the president of the Parliament – participating in lectures and workshops, keeping journals, and visiting sites not usually found on tourists’ itineraries, such as an orphanage, school and birthing center. Perhaps most importantly, the Rutgers students met with Senegalese students at the University of Dakar.  These students are already engaged in projects aimed at improving and transforming their communities.

“At its most basic level, the trip offers our students a different world view, and an opportunity to wrestle with western views of community, poverty and other concepts that vary around the world,” explains Clayton Walton, associate dean/director, Office of Student Life and Leadership. But far beyond that, the experience gave the students new global perspectives: on community leadership in other parts of the world, and on the impact of globalization and the Unites States’ relationship with other nations.  The trip also exposed the students to the impact of slavery during Senegal’s colonial era — when the country was a major slave port through which millions of slaves passed – and how slavery still affects modern Senegal. “Understanding how events in the past still influence today’s world is crucial to learning how to effect change in today’s society,” notes Walton.

The visit proved eye-opening to the Rutgers students. “Who knew a trip to Senegal would be a reality check?” reflected Moustapha Sylla.  “The Residence Life buildings (at the University of Dakar) resembled to me what would be considered project housing,” noted Phillip Robert Tomale. “It makes me think of how much people on campus complain, yet they have no idea how good they have it.”

The transformation in the students is reflected in their changed attitudes and expectations. “…After a trip like that most people have this immense urge to do something, but over time realities’ obstacles put out the fire and nothing really gets done.  Only some people are “do-ers,” explained Dayo Adiatu.  “But there is one thing we all are, and that is thinkers.  If we change the way we think, then we can change what we say and what we do.  Anyone can be impacted by that.  And if there’s one thing Senegal has done, that is change the way we think…”
As hoped, the visit gave the students a broader perspective.  “She (Senegal) taught me about the intimate connections between all the Africans, whether African-American, or Afro-Brazilian, etc.,” according to Marveltha Mensah.  “She (Senegal) echoed the sounds of the decapitating past but also rejoiced at the prospect of futuristic cultural prosperity and the present struggle to ensure it.”

The Africa trip was the culmination of the three-credit, two-semester seminar, aimed at developing leadership skills through coursework, readings, films, guest lectures, discussion and hands-on experiences,  including a “leadership exchange” with Penn State.  This exchange brings Penn State student leaders to Rutgers for a weekend of idea-sharing, field trips, meetings with civic and business leaders, and a volunteer activity within the Newark community.

The next phase of the program will incorporate what the students learned from the two seminar modules, along with they absorbed from their trip, and put it to practical use. One aspect of this is sharing what they learned through talks and presentations on campus and at nearby schools, said Walton.
The last phase is inspired by the students’ interactions with families who had lost their homes to disaster, as well as with other homeless individuals. The Rutgers students plan to create an on-campus resource for other students who are struggling financially.  “We want to provide counseling and career training,” explained Madeline Cruz.   “We will reach out to students and to the community.”

Once students accomplish that, the mission of the leadership seminar also will be achieved.   “Our primary goal,” said Walton, “is to encourage students to see themselves as active partners in the growth and development of urban communities, both here and abroad.”