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Our world, our lab

Culturally and geographically, Cambodia and South Africa are worlds apart, yet more than a few common threads bind these two resurgent nations.

For nearly two generations, Cambodia was an unforgiving bastion of communist rule under the notorious Khmer Rouge. During that time, civil society was systematically dismantled as millions of Cambodians were relocated away from cities and into rural areas to work in fields. A proud heritage was left to die and any trace of Western influence was eliminated from daily life.

Around the same time, South Africa was trapped under the unforgiving reign of apartheid. The segregated nation was a dichotomy of society: a small European minority enjoyed a lifestyle on par with first-world nations, while the native black population struggled under state-sanctioned oppression that extinguished any ray of hope for liberty and prosperity.

Now, after years of neglect, the people of these two countries are boldly cutting ties to their recent and deplorable past and are finding hope in education—and Lehigh’s global community is taking that journey along with them.

Cambodia

“When I enrolled in the course ‘Issues and Institutions in International Education Development,’ I expected to write another research paper, take another test, as I had done in my previous graduate courses,” commented William Brehm ’08, ’ 10G. “I had no idea the conversations I had in early August 2009 would define my trajectory after graduation.”

Last fall 15 graduate students in Lehigh’s comparative and international education program (CIE) teamed up to research, develop and propose an evolving educational partnership with Caring for Cambodia (CFC), an internationally acclaimed nongovernmental organization (NGO) headquartered in povertystricken Siem Reap.

CFC was first established in 2003 by William ’79 and Jamie Amelio. After traveling to Cambodia on vacation, Jamie encountered a young girl asking tourists for money.

“I asked her what she needed money for,” said Jamie Amelio. “When the little girl replied ‘to go to school,’ I knew there was a need for education. It was right before Mother’s Day, and I remember saying to Bill that all I wanted was for us to build a school in Cambodia. And seven years later, we are still here.”

Through the NGO, the Amelios have built a total of seven schools, trained numerous teachers and provided countless meals to thousands of malnourished and hungry children of Siem Reap. As their mission statement reads: “One child at a time, we can make a difference.”

“We have been blessed with the financial ability to make a difference in these schools, and the communities around them, so therefore we try and give back as much as possible,” says Jamie.

Because of the growing size of the organization, the Amelios felt it was time to take a step back and incorporate an academic and educational feasibility study to help review and guide their strategic vision for the future. The Amelios then approached Lehigh’s Office of Advancement with the idea of creating a partnership that would be mutually beneficial to both CFC and Lehigh University. The partnership would enhance what CFC does already and take it to new heights, but at the same time, provide new learning opportunities and hands-on experience for Lehigh students.

Iveta Silova, the Frank Hook Assistant Professor in the CIE program, was one of the professors approached to find a way to forge a partnership with CFC.

“I wanted to get students involved immediately,” said Silova. “I suggested that we actually develop the proposal for the partnership as part of my ‘Issues and Institutions in International Education Development’ course. So from the very beginning, the students would go through the thinking and brainstorming process of how to enter into an educational partnership with a nongovernmental organization abroad.”

Building the proposal required a three-pronged approach—a needs assessment of CFC, a capacity assessment of the College of Education and research on additional funding opportunities. Forming three separate groups, the 15 students worked on a different part of the proposal.

Two of the students, Brehm and Ciara Lowery Johnson ’09, ’10G, accompanied Silova to Cambodia in November 2009 to conduct the needs assessment for the proposal. “As part of the coursework before the trip, we created a methodology to follow while in Cambodia,” said Brehm. “In its most simplistic version, we asked all stakeholders in CFC similar questions to determine the strength and weaknesses of the NGO itself. Upon our return, we analyzed our results in collaboration with the other two teams’ results, outlining the final proposal as a class.”

The main goals of the partnership—establishing a scalable K-12 Cambodian education model, professionalizing CFC by creating sustainable structures and improving Cambodian graduates’ employment opportunities—were outlined and accepted by the Amelios at the end of the fall semester. The three-year partnership presents opportunities for students in Lehigh’s (CIE) program to travel to Cambodia every year to conduct research, collect data and undergo training.

“What’s really unique about this partnership is that we approached it philosophically as partners from the very beginning,” said Silova. “While in Cambodia, we were willing and interested to understand the uniqueness of the situation on the ground and were open to working with Cambodian colleges on an equal basis.” “This project felt much more like a life experience than a typical group project,” said Kelly Holland ’10G. “It was like a force of nature once we started the data collection, as each group had to be creative, aggressive and professional.”

South Africa

Running concurrently with the Cambodia project, another educational initiative in South Africa was beginning to take shape as Peter Morales ’84 asked Lehigh’s College of Education about ways to give back to his community.

Morales owns vineyards in the town of Paarl, South Africa, and operates his own wine and spirits import business, 57 Main Street Imports.

“While working in the community of Paarl, I wanted to do more than just give back monetarily,” said Morales. “By involving Lehigh’s College of Education, I hope to help bring forth an educational initiative that will work with primary and secondary schools in the previously disadvantaged communities of Paarl. This initiative will help better the communities’ future, and get Lehigh involved from an education perspective as well.”

Alexander Wiseman, coordinator of CIE and head of the South Africa Education Development Initiative (SAEDI), traveled to South Africa for two weeks in August of 2009 to visit the schools in the disadvantaged Paarl communities.

“It made sense for us to start a research initiative in South Africa,” said Wiseman. “South Africa is the best of both worlds—while it has a basic infrastructure, it is still a sub-Saharan country. You can have a truly sub-Saharan African experience and deal with all the issues and problems, yet only be 20 minutes from civilization.”

While in Paarl, Wiseman decided that SAEDI would focus its research on special education, community development, leadership and math and science education. As with the Cambodia proposal, Wiseman wasted no time getting Lehigh students and faculty involved.

In the fall of 2009, Wiseman left for his second trip to Paarl accompanied by Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership Jill Sporandio; Lehigh student Calvin Reed ’10G, a member of the CIE program; and doctoral student Jennifer Parks ’12G, from the special education program.

While in South Africa, Reed looked at the local communities and ways education could be used to develop community in disadvantaged areas. Sperandio researched educational leadership, and women’s leadership in particular. In South Africa, specifically Paarl, there is a real need for women’s leadership, she says. There is even an official push from the Ministry of Education to appoint more women to leadership positions, such as principals and assistant principals. Also, Parks researched special needs for learners related to cognitive and physical ways of learning.

“The trip was by all accounts a successful fact-finding mission,” said Reed. “When the team and I got back to the States, we began to work feverishly on grant proposals to garner enough external funding for the project to move into the implementation phase. I personally worked on a grant proposal called ‘Science Saturdays,’ which is a science enrichment program that will be offered to students on Saturday mornings in conjunction with a free meal program that already exists.”

Reed also helped develop a school partnership between Asa Packer Elementary School in Bethlehem, Pa., and Amstelhof Primary School in Paarl. Under the guidance of Wiseman, they were able to find enough funding for the school partnership to buy each of the schools three new Flip video cameras.

A friend of Morales, Frank Koos ’86, has also played a vital part in SAEDI by volunteering his time in South Africa. Koos, who was Morales’ fraternity brother at Zeta Psi, currently lives in Paarl. Acting as goodwill ambassador, Koos helps the SAEDI team by offering input on project design and development, and also serves as a project coordinator on the ground.

“I believe there is a great opportunity for Lehigh’s students to play a pivotal role in the evolution of the schools in South Africa, as well as the schools here playing an important role in Lehigh students’ own personal and professional development,” said Koos. “The country and the education system are so vastly diverse and offer so many unique challenges and experiences that anyone who becomes involved will make a positive difference and will also experience tremendous personal growth.”

Another Lehigh alumna, Toni Marraccini ’09, currently works with Amstelhof Primary School with hopes of furthering student health education curriculum using a school garden as a tool for learning. “The experience so far has been rewarding,” said Marraccini. “It has provided me with the opportunity to learn about a culture while collecting information about the nutritional status of the children in select grade levels.”

Lasting Partnerships

After becoming heavily involved with the Cambodia proposal and partnership last fall, Brehm and Lowery Johnson were both extended job offers to work for CFC as program managers in Siem Reap starting in August 2010.

During the fall 2010 semester, Silova taught a course titled “Program Evaluation.” Students partnered with Brehm and Lowery Johnson to evaluate the Child Friendly School Models used in the Amelio Schools in Cambodia. These evaluations will be used by a variety of educational organizations to improve programming.

Wiseman examined South Africa in the intro class “Comparative and International Education.” Students read texts and articles related to South African schooling as well as HIV and AIDS and their impact on education, and how education impacts the diseases. By the end of the class, Wiseman hopes the students will have enough information that they can put together a fundable proposal.

“Both the Cambodia project and the SAEDI project were initiated by alums who care passionately about education in the developing world,” commented Mike Russel ’11G, one of Silova’s students.

“Without their passion, I don’t think we would have been able to develop programs in East Asia or South Africa. One of the real strengths of both the Cambodia project and SAEDI has been the level of student participation. At every step, students were involved in the formation of this relationship.”

Story by By Kathleen Bittner

Posted on Wednesday, December 29, 2010

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