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Student news: Early days of LeaderShape are about similarity more than difference

All the traveling, sightseeing and adjustment to life in a Cape Town, South Africa dorm has led to this week: the beginning of the 2008 LeaderShape Institute. The 30 University of Wisconsin-Madison and 22 University of Cape Town engineering students plunged into six days of intensive analysis and reflection on what it means to be a leader and how each student can learn to make a difference.

This is the first time in LeaderShape's 20 plus years that American students are participating in the program overseas, and it's the first time LeaderShape has been held on the African continent.

UW-Madison alum Gary Wendt, a major sponsor for LeaderShape in Cape Town, spoke briefly to the students Sunday night at a welcome reception shortly after the UCT students arrived on campus. He says that LeaderShape is a great way to experience the leadership issues students will face after graduation.

This LeaderShape will offer students other opportunities, says Wendt, especially the experience of seeing cultural differences. “You're here and you're going to get a chance to experience with 20 other [South African] kids a life which is kind of hard for us to imagine,” he tells the group.

The two groups of students have come to LeaderShape in very different ways. The UW-Madison students applied for the program in July and have met periodically throughout the semester to prepare for the trip. The UCT students found out about the program on much shorter notice—one student, Denis Wong, an electrical and computer engineering student at UCT, was contacted Monday morning and asked if he'd like to participate in the program. It started at 1:00 p.m. that same day.

“This is going to be quite an experience,” he says. “To be part of some kind of foreign, local mixed program is going to be the best part.”

Other students didn't realize the six-day program was more than an hour and have just learned there is a service project next week.

Duncan Fraser, an associate professor of chemistry at UCT, acknowledged Sunday evening that his students didn't know much about LeaderShape. “We didn't know what this program was like, we just took it on faith,” he says. “And the students didn't have a clue what they were getting into.” He adds that next time UCT does LeaderShape, there will be good selling points to tell potential participants. This year's UCT students are accepting the element of surprise and sticking with the program.

The activities on Sunday evening and Monday offered students a better look at the similarities between their cultures and an opportunity to learn to work together to accomplish tasks.

The reception Sunday threw the Capetonians and Madisonites together for the first time, and students had to swallow any awkwardness and introduce themselves before watching an African drum and dance performance.

Dinner provided students a comfortable setting to talk and joke with each other, and over bobotie (a Cape Town meatloaf-like mince dish served over rice, pronounced ba-boor-tea) UCT and UW-Madison students compared the sports programs and engineering departments of the two schools.

By the time malva (a traditional baked pudding) was served, several students from both universities were laughing and chatting easily, and a couple of the facilitators commented on how quickly the groups blended.

Monday's activities forced a deeper interaction between the different cultures. The theme of the day was to build community, and students did so via a low ropes course facilitated by a local adventure training company. For the engineering students, some of the challenges were easy—groups could coordinate a bucket held by ropes and stack 12 nails on top of each other without too much difficulty.

Other challenges emphasized teamwork and communications skills, and students tested their abilities in large and small groups. There wasn't much of a difference in how UCT and UW-Madison students in general went about the challenges. Students from both groups offered ideas and found compromises, though the more assertive personalities tended to be Americans.


UW-Madison and UCT students

UW-Madison and UCT students navigate a "minefield" to fill a cup with water by relying on each other's directions. Photo: College of Engineering Assistant Dean Donald Woolston (large image)


Tuesday, LeaderShape switched to a more individual focus on discovering which leadership style each student follows. An individual approach will also be key for developing social relationships with UCT students. The UCT participants represent three of South Africa's racial groups—black, white and colored—and many come from or were born in countries outside of South Africa.

Some UCT participants come from other areas of Africa, including Zimbabwe and Nigeria, as well as Germany, England and China. UW-Madison students are learning to communicate with people from many ethnicities, nationalities and classes, and are grappling not only with the South African culture but also with specific individuals from a wide variety of perspectives. Tuesday, the focus became less on what is different and more on finding similarity and familiarity within this variety in the sessions and at meals.

Soon, the students will confront what is different about their cultures, at least historically. The LeaderShape participants will visit Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 20 years, which will likely provoke more discussion about race and equality in the South African, American and other nationalities' contexts.