Sunday, June 1, 2008

Your Student Reps visit Cape Town, South Africa

From May 14 to May 26, 2008, Department of Resident Life Director Deb Grandner took two staff members and five student leaders on a trip to Cape Town, South Africa for a student leadership conference hosted by ACUHO-International (Association of College and University Housing Officers-International). Among those student leaders were three RHA representatives, former President 2007 - 2008, Sumner Handy, President Alex Beuchler, and yours truly, Vice-President Josef Mensah. Student leaders from across the southern region of Africa (mostly from the country of South Africa) gathered to discuss issues pertaining to leadership structures on campus, what resident students face, and what resident student leaders can do to be more effective for their constituents.

Cape Town, South Africa

The student leadership conference proved that though we may have differences when it comes to identity or geographic location, the role as an on-campus student and on-campus student representative should not and cannot be taken lightly. We were met with some of the brightest and most passionate student leaders that southern Africa had to offer. Living just fourteen years after the end of apartheid, legalized segregation in South Africa, student leaders there are met with a unique challenge to work towards student unity, and deal with political and social pressures outside the campus.

What was personally enlightening was to realize how unique the RHA's structure is on the University of Maryland campus. The fact that we remain autonomous from Student Affairs and are elected by residents is a truly special attribute of our organization. We maintain a good working relationship with university staff yet we answer to our students. We have the opportunity to recommend on-campus policy and be taken seriously on those matters. On the programming side our hall/area councils have come up with great ideas that keep students involved and build community.

While I hope that other student leaders learned a lot from us, I am very sure we learned a lot from them. Have you ever thought about our campus's policy for pregnant students? Have you ever thought about how international students studying abroad are integrated onto our campus? Have you ever thought of what it would be like if our campus and residence halls lacked diversity? Those are only a few of the questions that students in southern Africa deal with. It reminded me how important it is to maintain passion and drive to create change on campus.

From left to right: Josef Mensah, RHA VP; Sumner Handy , Former RHA Pres (07 - 08); Alex Beuchler, RHA Pres; Pearl, Univ. of Free State; Jamar Mancano, Univ. of MD RA; Jessica Jacques, Univ of MD RA.

I was very interested in how certain schools like the University of Western Cape used block captains (what we would call floor representatives) to engage students in programming. It got me thinking about how we could better utilize floor reps in order to get students involved in leadership and get other students involved in campus life whether by policy or programs.

I also learned that one size does NOT fit all when it comes to finding solutions as student leaders. Although our RHA structure works at UMD, it probably wouldn't work as well at Marquette University, a private college in Wisconsin that was also present. However, there are lessons that we can learn from each other and techniques that we can take in order to give our respective constituents what they need.

After returning last Monday, I'm very excited to start working on issues pertaining to our on-campus students. The RHA Execs have already begun working together and I must say that I think the year is going to go very well with those on board. Get involved; get excited! This year is going to be great!

See everyone in August!

Posted by: Josef Mensah, Vice President