By Bathabile Dlamini
HARARE, November 20, 2015-International education is an agent of self-consciousness that can lead to cultural understanding among and between peoples, an alumnus of one of the United States exchange programs said on Tuesday.
“I never really identified myself as an African—it never occurred to me that I was one until I came across certain stereotypes about my African-ness during my time in the United States,” said Gladys Hlatywayo, a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship (Public Policy Analysis) alumnus.
“Sometimes you are a little defensive…but over time you become grounded in your identity as an African and begin to appreciate other cultures.”
Hlatywayo was one of the panel members at a Food for Thought discussion session to commemorate International Education Week at the United States Embassy Public Affairs Section on Tuesday. She spent almost a year at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs interacting with participants from other countries. Sharing her experiences, she said one is confronted by some stereotypes that she never expected.
“Do you drive cars in Zimbabwe? Can you show me pictures of a vehicle in Africa?” were some of the questions some people confronted her with, she said.
She admitted that she also had pre-conceived ideas about Americans before participating in the Fellowship but these changed as she learned that the United States had more diversity than she envisaged. “I had my pre-conceived ideas about Americans and engaging with them and other people from other cultures really de-constructed these pre-conceived ideas,” said Hlatywayo who is also the director of the Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust (ZIMCET) and a board member of Radio VOP.
“I thought Americans talk too much, I was surprised to see the differences—it’s a large country and of course there are similarities here and there but largely they are different; the experience challenged me to think beyond the usual binaries like black and white; male and female, et cetera,” she said.
The Hubert Humphrey Program is a year-long non-degree academic study and allows participants to enrich their professional and cultural experience in the United States. Fellows return to their home country after completing the program. According to the United States Embassy Public Affairs Section, 60 Zimbabweans have participated in the highly acclaimed fellowship program in diverse fields including journalism and the media, natural Resources and Environmental Management; public policy analysis and administration. Other participants have covered economic development; agricultural development and economics; finance and banking; law and human rights; and HIV/AIDS policy and prevention.
Hlatywayo works on on peace building and conflict prevention and she says the fellowship experience has enhanced her work in promoting dialogue among communities.
“The more that you engage in conversations with people that do not necessarily think like you or act like you the more that you understand the person on the other side, the more that you realize that we have a common humanity,” she counseled.
Among other academic and professional activities, she says fellows were assigned host families to assist in understanding how Americans experienced celebrations such as the Halloween and Thanksgiving.
She will build on the experience to enhance her career, she says.
“When you get an opportunity to learn outside your country, outside your culture, you actually increase your competitiveness in the job market, especially when you look at how the 21st century is configured,” she added. “We are now talking of a globalized economy and its most likely that in work spaces you are going to meet people from different cultures, people from different countries. After the Hubert Humphrey Fellow, and through the people I met though my fellowship, I had so many job offers.”
International Education Week is a joint initiative of the United States Department of State and the Department of Education provides an opportunity to celebrate the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide. ”The beauty of educational exchanges is that the host community gains as much, if not more from the experience. As an international student, you get to teach the world about where you come from and who you are.” said Kelly McCaleb, Deputy Public Affairs Officer at the United States Embassy.