South African Students Embraced by Their 'Cousins' Upon Arrival at Kent State
Sounds of joyful singing could be heard coming from Oscar Ritchie Hall, when a group of nine students and their professor from the University of Fort Hare in Alice, Eastern Cape, South Africa, were welcomed to Kent State University as part of an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in South Africa.
During a welcome ceremony at Oscar Ritchie, the Fort Hare students were asked to introduce themselves, and several began their introductions by singing, explaining that in their culture, it is customary to begin such a presentation with a song or poem that reflects the person who is presenting.
The welcome ceremony was organized by Felix Kumah-Abiwu, Ph.D., associate professor of Africana Studies and director of the Center for African Studies at Kent State, who along with Nomzamo Dube, Ph.D., academic coordinator for the Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies at Fort Hare, has worked for several years planning the exchange program.
The Fort Hare students will spend 10 days in Ohio, visiting Cleveland and the state capital in Columbus, as well as spending time on the Kent Campus, touring the May 4 Visitors Center and taking part in exchanges with their Kent State counterparts, seven students who spent 15 days at Fort Hare at the end of the 2023 Spring Semester in May.
The program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Embassy in South Africa through its Heritage Ubuntu Student Research Project, which provides opportunities for collaboration and knowledge exchange across borders. Students from both institutions met virtually throughout the fall 2022 and spring 2023 semesters.
Kumah-Abiwu said the idea behind the exchange is for students to gain a better understanding of the two countries’ shared histories, with Jim Crow segregation laws in the U.S., and apartheid in South Africa, as well as contemporary issues such as women’s rights and LGBTQ rights.
“The role of the project is to share histories between South Africa and America and to create relations between the students who are part of the fellowships,” Dube said.
At the welcome ceremony, held Nov. 30, the students heard from Mandy Munro-Stasiuk, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Manfred van Dulmen, Ph.D., associate provost for Academic Affairs and dean of the Graduate College, as well as representatives from the Office of Global Education and the Department of Africana Studies.
Kent State offers a vibrant international environment rooted in a long tradition of hosting thousands of students from more than 100 countries around the world. Kent State offers more than 200 study-abroad opportunities in more than 60 countries, allowing students to take part in transformational academic and career-preparation experiences across the globe.
Aside from their songs, the Fort Hare students shared some details of the traditional dress they were wearing and talked with great excitement about the opportunity to travel to the U.S. for the first time.
“It feels so surreal that we’re actually here,” said Sisipho Matebese, a Fort Hare graduate student in development studies, noting how students have spent much time on social media learning about Kent State and the area. “What’s more important, I am looking forward to the collaborations that we are yet to create in this program.”
The two groups of students formed close bonds in May and were excited to be reunited, referring to each other as “cousins.”
Two of the Kent State students who traveled to South Africa in May greeted their counterparts with poems of their own, including Adara Mickels, a senior international relations major, whose poem stated in part:
“A new day is here. A day of celebration to remember how far we have come. It feels like yesterday we were in South Africa, embraced by our cousins, the day that changed our lives. And today, a day we will cherish and not forget,” she said. “Real dreams are here. Real stories are here. Real people are here. A bliss of creation. Close your eyes and feel it, the possibilities, the raising of our voices, applauding you.”