Student news: UW-Madison and University of Cape Town students find vision and friendship at first cross-cultural LeaderShape
For three weeks in January, 30 University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering students explored the city and met the people of Cape Town, South Africa. And during the 2008 LeaderShape Institute, held on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus, they learned to change the world one goal at a time.
The Wisconsin students were paired with 22 UCT students and stayed on the UCT campus. Though UW-Madison has hosted LeaderShape for more than a decade, this is the first time the program has been held in Africa, and it’s the first time American students have gone overseas to participate.
Early New Year’s Day, the UW-Madison students flew more than 20 hours to Cape Town. They spent the first few days adjusting to a time zone eight hours ahead of Wisconsin. In keeping with advice from UCT chemical engineering associate professor Duncan Fraser, the students used exercise and sunshine to beat the jet-lag. They explored downtown Cape Town, climbed Table Mountain and toured the Cape Peninsula, which is home to overly curious baboons and penguins content to merely sway in the wind.
On Day 6 (Sunday, January 6) of the trip, the UCT students arrived for LeaderShape, a six-day program focused on developing leadership qualities and identifying personal visions for changing the world. This year’s cross-cultural session was “the most intense LeaderShape I’ve seen,” says co-lead facilitator and UW-Madison alum Kristin Skarie.
The UCT students hailed from many African, Asian and European countries, as well as a variety of racial and class backgrounds. Their variety of perspectives, combined with those of the UW-Madison students, led to conversations that found a deep level of authenticity, says LeaderShape co-lead facilitator Jamie Washington. Immediately, the UW-Madison and UTC students bonded. “We have come together perfectly,” says Joey Laspe, a UW-Madison nuclear engineering student.
Abbott Laboratories and a private contributor, Gary Wendt, sponsored the trip. Students had an opportunity to meet and thank Wendt when he visited Cape Town during LeaderShape (January 6 to 12). Wendt and College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy spoke to students about what it takes to be an effective leader. Vision and character are the two qualities central to leadership, according to Peercy. For Wendt, every vision needs to be grounded in reality and every leader needs to be persuasive enough to get people to believe in an idea.
Wendt’s own vision led him to support the trip. “We are no longer citizens of Madison or Cape Town, but citizens of the world,” he says. “Why I’m excited about being involved in this is it’s an opportunity to get engineers out of a relatively closed environment and into another environment. Being in another country is an interesting chance to learn.”
Both UW-Madison and UCT students found the LeaderShape program valuable. “I learned so much more about myself in five days than I have learned in years,” says Lesego Mosime, a construction studies student at UCT. “It was a beautiful experience for me.”
During the final week of the trip (January 13 to 18), the group had to put their teamwork and motivation skills to the test. The students worked at the Edith Stephens Wetland Park, a small preserve set in the middle of five poor townships on the outskirts of Cape Town. The pond at the park has been choked off by water hyacinth, and students spent four laborious days tossing the weed into tall piles along the banks, as well as helping with other small maintenance projects around the preserve. “The next time I see a water hyacinth, which may be in my dad’s fish pond, I’m going to throw it over the fence,” says Craig MacKenzie, a UW-Madison civil engineering student.
The hot, sweaty, mucky, nasty work—as facilitator and UW-Madison educational policy studies doctoral student JP Leary describes the project—was important to the park. With six dedicated staff members and no real funding, the park scratches out an existence in the barren Cape Flats region.
The pond is critical for the poverty-stricken communities at its borders. Winter in Cape Town means rain, and the pond keeps the water from flooding the townships. The invasive water hyacinth makes it harder for rain to run into the pond; students could envision the damage waist-high water might inflict on the tiny homes after they toured one community, Philippi, the day (January 13) before the project.
The pond offers relief from the gray, dusty landscape of the Cape Flats, as well as a home to many bird and wildlife species that risk losing their breeding spots as the hyacinth ruins the wetland ecosystem. Denis Kow Son Wong, a UCT computer and electrical engineering student, wants to continue the project by educating township kids about the value the pond has for their communities and their wildlife. “If we don’t teach them or educate them on what we did—in this case, taking out the hyacinths and maybe bringing new hope to the wildlife—inevitably the place will end up as it was before, as if we didn’t make any difference at all,” says Wong. “They’d be walking blind past this pond.”
Throughout the project, the students encouraged each other and stayed enthusiastic about working in weather that alternated between blistering hot or chilly, windy and rainy. “These very different student groups came quickly together as one and it’s very gratifying to see that spirit of collaboration make it all the way through to the end,” says Adrienne Thunder, a LeaderShape facilitator and senior advisor in the UW-Madison College of Letters and Science. “The students have been excellent representatives of both institutions.”
All too soon, January 18 arrived and the UW-Madison students packed and departed South Africa for the long flight home. However, the experience has left students from both sides of the Atlantic with strong cross-cultural relationships. “During LeaderShape, people wanted to get along, and it was easy to trust each other and talk openly,” says Ahmed Akhalwaya, a UCT computer engineering student.
Andrew Elizondo, a UW-Madison engineering mechanics and astronautics student, agrees that the Madison and UCT students got very close in a short amount of time. “I see us still cracking jokes a year from now,” he says. “It’s not really over.”