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Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, Classrooms beyond Borders, US

Bringing Africa to her classroom in New York state was a dream of Peyi Soyinka-Airewele’s. Subsequently, the Classrooms Beyond Borders initiative was born, which connects students and faculty around the world. She tells The PIE about how the project has developed over the years, Africa’s role in internationalisation, and the importance of ensuring that partnerships are mutually beneficial.

The PIE: How did you get involved international education?

"I was really concerned... that students who we work with on the African continent often do not have as much mobility as our students"

PSA: It was after I got to Ithaca College, I began teaching there and found I was the only black female faculty member in the African program. I very desperately wanted to find ways of opening windows and doors to my students so they could begin to understand the African continent, the black experience and African American history outside of anything that one person could ever provide for them.

It was more than just wanting them to go on study abroad programs, I wanted to be able to transform my own classroom, how I conceptualised the classroom and how it helped them to see the space as just a launching board where they could themselves travel, find linkages, question what I am saying, be aware there is controversy about everything I teach on the African continent.

And I found that it is too easy to become that voice of wisdom, that authoritative master from Africa, on Africa and I really wanted them to be able to really imagine they were studying on the continent themselves, and so that is where I began finding how can I do this, how can I think outside the box.

The PIE: So how did you start doing that?

PSA: I guess the first thing I did was to start with a concept which was a classroom which was international and collaborative and that could have multiple teachers and multiple students and a place for discussion. So I started by reaching out to my alma mater in Nigeria at Obafemi Awolowo University – I connected to some of my friends and faculty members, I then convinced my institution, Ithaca College to be invested in it, travelled, sat down with them and we brainstormed on how we could do this.

“I really wanted them to be able to really imagine they were studying on the continent themselves”

We developed a great collaborative relationship, and I think that is really the first step where the people who are spearheading this idea actually build a really good relationship, understanding the mutual benefits we could get. I think that very often we leave that out, when you are in the US in a pretty powerful space and we tend to impose our own interests and needs upon the rest of the world.

So for me it was something that was, ‘do you think this is something that might be interesting to you, of any benefit to your students?’, and they were like ‘yes, let’s go’ and so we decided why don’t we coordinate two classes and so they had a human rights classroom there. I had a class that was Africa in world politics and so we began to look at how we could have intersections in the syllabus where we could then have shared materials that might be a great place for students to talk and engage.

Then there was a problem – their internet service was really bad so we had to think about a synchronous way of working together, so I travelled, I did recordings of the teacher speaking about some of those things and then we discussed it and we put that on the website, uploaded their students to our university website and so the students started with this conversation about themselves, their backgrounds and what they were interested in and then it took off from there.

The PIE: So how long ago was this?

PSA: This was 2002, it has expanded, more universities joined in, another university in Nigeria, then Ghana, South Africa, Palestine and in the US also.

The PIE: So you all work together now as a network?

PSA: We work together, for me it is not just about the students, it is about us scholars needing one another for survival, having that passion. I think there has to be that need, and I have never wanted to be in a place in the US where I could ever feel that I was an African politics or international relations faculty member without needing the world – without needing to learn from my colleagues, to have them challenge your ideas.

“There are limitations with technology because you still feel that distance from when you are actually in that space”

Ithaca College is a fairly wealthy institution, fairly small, it is about 7,000 students and so it is easy for each of us to carve out these areas of our expertise, it is not like you have an array of an entire program, and so I needed that program and so the world is my program.

It is where I find colleagues who challenge me, otherwise I would have no one else to talk to and I wanted my students to feel the same way whenever they are in the classroom – it is what you don’t know that is more important that what you think you are actually learning.

The PIE: Is there student mobility between the campuses? Is this something you are looking into?

PSA: They travel, but idea with the Classrooms Beyond Borders program, I was really concerned about the fact that students who we work with on the African continent often do not have as much mobility as our students. So we discussed this and were very careful to want to find a way that students did not feel deprived within the program because they didn’t have that mobility.

So the idea was how do we create a different sense of mobility without first feeling deprived or marginalised because one person can get a visa, or doesn’t even need a visa and the other has to line up for a year and never get a visa.

Although secretly our desire would be to have students travel and exchange across the campuses, we were very careful to keep that on the backburner and to look for ways we could actually amplify what it meant to work in a collaborative mode outside of an imperial or colonial model.

There are limitations with technology because you still feel that distance from when you are actually in that space but it was to create a desire for students to want to be in that space and so if it happened we would encourage and support that.

The PIE: How do you see Africa’s position in the internationalisation debate?

PSA: The conversation seems to be that in the rest of the world, without getting out, without bringing people in, Africa will never match up. I think it is something we have to be very careful about and decide why is it that we are invested into the conversation about internationalisation.

For many African institutions it is about falling behind in the rankings, so the only way to become ranked is to compete with them out there and to become part of that globalisation, but the reality is that globalisation has systematically left Africa out and created that sense of exploitation. So how do we get out of that very vicious cycle and that discourse and still be part of what we are already part of?

“It is about creating inclusive communities, inclusive societies and that is what I am looking at”

For me I am looking at how do we navigate that? What are the positive goods that matter to us? Those are the kinds of things I was reflecting upon when I was thinking about a time way back in history. The difference is imagining what inclusiveness means. I think for me it is less about internationalisation and more Africa for its own needs, its own struggles. It is about creating inclusive communities, inclusive societies and that is what I am looking at.

Where there is mutual exchange, a mutual benefit, in that expansive sense where you are very intentional, you are still determined and controlling what it is that you want, the values that underpinned that system, the end products of it, the outcomes of it.

I think that is what we need to focus on, because the indigenisation process was very important for many African institutions; it was necessary to recover control of our fortune. But at the same time I think its unintended consequences, a combination of the economic crisis with that postcolonial struggle for sovereignty, led to a kind of situation where its institutions became primarily only African.

I think that deprives all of us, I think it deprives the world, the students and faculty members of very human interaction and exchange where people come and benefit from learning in the context that we also kind of gave from them.

I think when that is there, things like collaborations in research then take off in a more natural, very equitable manner. What we have now in this conversation is an almost desperate longing for the goods of the West, it is a little one sided, it is how our students will get there, how we get funding – that is problematic.

The PIE: So what were the African institutions’ priority for the collaborations they have with Ithaca?

PSA: There were hidden layers and then there were the voiced layers. What was spoken in terms of their priorities was that they wanted their students to be a part of a conversation that meant that they had access to books, to resources.

I began with Nigeria and it is a very cosmopolitan country, very engaged with the world, students are online when they can afford it.

Initially, they thought it would be great to have those conversations, it would be great as political scientists, international relations to actually be engaged in that sense and that was the initial thing. But what happened was within a year, it became clear the students were wanting something more substantive and this is partly because in many African countries success and progress is defined in terms of certification.

And so you are working with students who are seniors or juniors, they are not just thinking about conversation, they want to know about postgraduate studies, they wanted to know about things we hadn’t initially thought about.

It did make me then realise that I was to some extent initially engaging from the point of privilege of the students at Ithaca who were not so much worried about the ‘after’ in that same concrete way. I had more flexibility with grading, so I could grade my students more easily in terms of the conversations, the reading, their engagement. In the universities we were working with, they had set exams, so everything that they were doing was an extra and they couldn’t get credit for it so easily.

“In many African countries success and progress is defined in terms of certification”

We began by having conversations about could we change that and then we found out that they were exerting a lot more effort in terms of having access to the internet and things like that so we had to look into how to work through those dilemmas. We began to create joint courses and using that as a starting point of how do we create certification.

So that itself was the thing we were learning as students and faculty members about the ethics about how you create mutual benefit; how do you avoid exploitative relationships; how do we transform the conventional ways in which the West works with the rest.

The PIE: One of the hot topics in the international education sector is employability. How are these outcomes measured?

PSA: That was a key concern for the students overseas in particular. For the students in Ithaca it seemed to them instinctive that it will increase my employability because I can talk about this experience, and we began attracting a lot of students who are open to going into that career. We have students who are now working with NGOs overseas, in the Congo, they have done really well, many of them.

But for the students in Nigeria and in Palestine I think it has been more beneficial through their postgraduate programming because for many of them it is much more difficult to navigate from a first degree into that employment and so it has been very helpful.

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