by C.A. Carlson
Over the course of nine summers, Denison hosted more than 1,000 South Africans who hoped to fight apartheid through education.
Taking On Apartheid from Granville
South African students lobbied the program to create an orientation to help them prepare for an unfamiliar American educational system and the difficulties of life in another culture.
In the 1980s, South African students protested apartheid in the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town, but they also fought it by sitting down to cookouts with Granville families and attending lectures in drowsy Denison classrooms on summer afternoons. More than a thousand black students stepped outside South Africa’s segregated education system from 1982 to 1990 to become participants in the South African Orientation Program held at Denison. There, they learned about new possibilities for themselves and their country. “We were able to speak freely with each other about South Africa for the first time,” says Nazeema Mohamed ’87. “We could re-think who we were and what we might achieve.”
The month-long orientation sessions, enrolling about 100 students each summer, were a part of the South African Education Program (not to be confused with the orientation program itself), a non-profit launched by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the late 1970s and run by the Institute of International Education.
Denison’s president at the time, Robert Good, had served as U.S. ambassador to Zambia during the Johnson administration, and he remained interested in the future of South Africa, accepting a position on the South African Education Program’s board. The program matched students with American universities and provided scholarships backed by the U.S. government, corporations, and other donors who wanted to ensure that black South Africans were prepared to take on leadership roles in their own country. The Education Program began placing students at U.S. schools in 1979, but the first groups struggled to adjust to their American universities. The students lobbied the program to create an orientation process to help them prepare for the unfamiliar American educational system and the difficulties of life in another culture. President Good suggested Denison as the site, and Don Schilling, a European history expert who taught courses on Africa as well, was tapped to run the orientation, serving as its director for six of its nine years on the Denison campus.
“We wanted to provide both formal and informal experiences that would make it easier for newly arriving students to succeed [in the U.S.],” says Schilling. More than half of the participants were entering graduate programs, often in social sciences or engineering, after being out of school for years, and Denison faculty offered them refresher courses in math and statistics. In response to an urgent plea from the program’s first classes, every student received a typewriter and typing lessons (in later years, they worked on computers). Schilling and his staff, including fellow professors and future program directors, Charles O’Keefe and Richard Lucier, organized soccer matches and field trips to the Ohio State Fair (where Schilling and some students occasionally performed South African music). Participants attended lectures on American history and culture, and they learned about higher education in the U.S., a system vastly different from the one that they had known in South Africa.