Approximately 8,200 miles from Blacksburg you will find the hustle and bustle of a campus community, very much like that of Virginia Tech. Bloemfontein, South Africa, is home to one of the oldest universities in the country, the University of the Free State (UFS). Here, students from Virginia Tech can learn about agricultural principles and practices in a foreign country.
For the past 10 years, Virginia Tech and the UFS have forged a partnership through their highly successful, bilateral student exchange program. In addition to the learning aspect, the program also provides an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in the culture where they can explore the similarities and differences first hand.
''Spending a semester in South Africa opened my eyes to a whole new culture and way of life,'' says Leah Harris, a senior from Ashland, Va., majoring in animal and poultry sciences and agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. ''We had to learn to be open to new ways of thinking and to be tolerant of other opinions and points of view.''
Since its inception, more than 120 students have participated in the exchange program, 65 of them from Virginia Tech. In summer 2008, officials from the universities signed a third memorandum of understanding, agreeing to continue the program until 2013.
''I believe this program is one of the most successful one-to-one exchange programs that the university is involved with,'' says Jim McKenna, interim head of the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences.
McKenna, who helped establish the program in 1997, explains that it was created as a bilateral program whereby the two universities swap students. Bilateral exchange programs tend to be more affordable as students pay tuition and lodging at their own institution. The only additional costs to the students are their transportation and food.
Virginia Tech students enroll in the UFS's first semester, which begins in February and runs until June. Because most students do not have much international travel experience, the college tries to send a faculty member to escort the students to South Africa. The professor spends four to six weeks at the UFS and serves as the on-site advisor to the students.
''This is reassuring to the students and parents,'' says Richard Fell, professor of entomology. Fell escorted a group of 10 students to South Africa in 2001. ''While the faculty members are there, they have the opportunity to collaborate and interact with UFS faculty and lecture in classes.''
While at the UFS, students take courses just like at Virginia Tech. ''The credits transfer but not the grades,'' says Fell. This is important, he points out, because students are able to apply the credits toward their degree program, and the experience will not hinder their progress to complete their degree.
Although widely spoken in South Africa, English is not typically a first language. There are 11 different languages spoken throughout the country. Thankfully for the Virginia Tech students, all the courses are taught in English and Afrikaans.
Not all the learning happens in the classroom. By immersing themselves in the culture for an entire semester, students learn about the social and political challenges that impact South Africa.
While in South Africa, Cindy Green, agricultural and extension education graduate from Berryville, Va. — who participated in the program in 2006 — and another Virginia Tech student, Sara Sharp, a 2008 fisheries and wildlife graduate from Mechanicsville, Va., had an opportunity to work on a community service project with a church group. ''We helped build a house in one of the local townships outside of Bloemfontein,'' says Green.
They built a house for a mother and her four children. The father had died of AIDS, and the mother was recuperating from tuberculosis.
''It was a very rewarding experience as it provided a connection to feel and understand how ‘shantytown' life truly is,'' says Green. ''There was a great sense of community not only with the church group but with the neighbors around the family we were building the house for.''
Evidenced by their ambition to travel more and perhaps further their education, the students who have been to Bloemfontein returned with a new appreciation and perspective of the world around them.
''Although South Africa has become quite developed, it has struggled to get there,'' says Harris. ''It is fascinating to learn about agriculture's role in the economic and social transformation of a country. Next year I plan to pursue a master's degree in international development and trade; hopefully I will be able to gain exposure in other developing communities and work with people to help improve their food security and overall well-being.''
To learn more, read ''To Bloemfontein and Back'' in the 2009 edition of Innovations, the flagship publication of Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Bloemfontein, South Africa, is home to one of the oldest universities in the country, the University of the Free State.
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