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Elizabeth Ferguson from George Mason University is the program director of an annual faculty-led study abroad program titled, Social Movements in South Africa. Learn more about the program, the motivation behind it and what it takes to execute a program abroad successfully.  

Faculty-led Study Abroad Program | Social Movements in South Africa

Our faculty-led study abroad programs allow us the privilege of meeting and working alongside outstanding educators and faculty members from all around the world. Together we set out to design and facilitate unique programs that will challenge and transform the students on their journey abroad.

Elizabeth Ferguson, a faculty member from George Mason University, is such an educator. She lectures in composition and professional writing and leads an annual study abroad program to South Africa: Social Movements in South Africa (English 488: Topics in Writing and Rhetoric).

What motivated you to design and lead the Social Movements faculty-led program in South Africa?

“I was motivated to start and run this program after teaching at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa for a semester in 2014. I had been interested in South African politics since I was young. When I finally got the opportunity to live and work in South Africa, I realized the vast gap between what I knew before I got there and how much I had to learn about South Africa’s history, people, and many cultures. Additionally, I realized how there is no substitute for learning all of those things while on the ground and in the country.

When I got back to the United States from my time in South Africa, I wanted to find an opportunity to create a program where I could provide students with the experience of learning about South Africa from the inside out.”

Elizabeth’s graduate degrees are in Rhetoric and Composition and her course is framed through these disciplinary canons (e.g. delivery, embodiment, invention, or memory). According to Elizabeth, the initial focus of her course was to try and bridge the social movements in South Africa that worked to end Apartheid, with those that currently exist in its vibrant democracy. With each annual program this evolved to focus more on current social movements (i.e. Fees Must Fall, labor movements, women’s equality, and LGBTQ rights) within the context of anti-Apartheid social movements.

Tell us about your course outline:

“During the course students examine how action happened at various points during the protests against Apartheid and consider actions currently taken in the current social movements. They will examine the ways food, music, and dance are communicated to outsiders as embodied experiences and how the government as a source of invention, in its various forms, created and re-created South Africa through laws.  Memory is how a culture has memorialized its past. Memory and invention are closely tied together because culture is invented and grows out of a public and private memory of the past. By using the canons of rhetoric students are able to explore the sites and experiences within South Africa using a broad lens.

The course schedule reflects these categories and the readings for the course are divided by these same rhetorical categories. The research method students will employ for this course is autoethnography, [using…] self-reflection and writing to explore their personal experience and connect this […] to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings. Students [then] formulate a research question and write an annotated bibliography. The research question will help guide them through the in-country portion of the program and offer them a lens to filter the experiences through. Students are guided on how to write field notes during the program and use those notes as data for their autoethnographic papers.”

How does the study abroad experience in South Africa add value to this course? 

“South Africa offers many unique opportunities for all types of study abroad programs. My students mentioned several highlights for the experience of learning in South Africa. First, throughout our two-week programs my students and I interact with a wide-variety of people within South Africa. Each year my students are struck by how open South Africans are when my students ask them questions.  Second, students remarked about how they did the required reading before getting to South Africa, but the experience of being in the country elevated what they learned in the reading to a new level. Being in South Africa allows students to see Nelson Mandela’s house, his law practice, and the cell where he spent most of his time on Robben Island. However, and maybe more importantly, students are able to see and experience South Africa beyond the single story of Nelson Mandela. While we are on Robben Island students also learn about Robert Sobukwe. While we are in Soweto [we] learn about Hector Pieterson. By experiencing South Africa from the inside out students are able to see beyond the single story of the anti-apartheid struggle and Nelson Mandela.”

How do you ensure this program successfully runs and improves each year?

“Planning is the key to success for a study abroad program like the one I run. This is an intense, two-week program and I want to ensure that students have a quality educational experience during their time in South Africa. At my university, the program planning takes place directly after I get back from South Africa in January.
A key aspect to planning for the success of a program is making notes as the program is happening. I incorporate this type of reflective practice in my classroom teaching and find it quite helpful for my study abroad instruction as well. By taking notes as the program is underway I am able to look back at a real-time account for what worked well, what did we change in the moment, how did students want to spend their free time, or even where did we decide to eat while we were close to a particular site or location. All of these notes help me plan my next trip. Each program I have run was different from the one before.
Furthermore, I have gone back to my students a year after the program to see what was most meaningful to them in their long-term memory of their experience. In the moment, students may feel the biggest impact from a fun activity, but what sticks with them over the long-term may be more revealing.”

How do you recruit students for this program?

“Our study abroad program office holds a fair for programs to recruit in the spring and in the fall semesters. Those study abroad fairs get interest up and help students plan for the programs they are interested in pursuing.
Other recruitment activities I utilize are visiting classes in the summer and fall semesters and doing movie screenings that are on theme with my program. The classroom visits allow me to make face-to-face contact with potential students, show them a quick video of past programs, and answer questions from students about pricing, financial aid, and what academic credits they might be able to get while on the trip.  The movie screenings allow me to reach a broader audience through the theme of the movie. Additionally, the screenings allow me to add something tangible for the instructors that I contact about promoting the movie to their students. So, instead of asking to take some of their instructional time, I am adding an extra credit opportunity for them to offer to their students.”

How does a Faculty-led study abroad program benefit the participating students?

“Faculty-led study abroad programs offer a great benefit to students that might, at first, not be realized. When I first thought about this aspect of my program I thought it was a simple answer of ‘we (the faculty) are the subject matter experts.’ However, I think that while this is true and a given for why we are leading a study abroad program in a particular subject matter to a specific location, the real benefit is a step beyond. As an instructor from the same university where my students are attending school I know them as a part of the culture of our university. The students are not simply university students, but they are university students from my university. Each instructor knows the institutional character of the place where they teach. We may only interact with these students for a short time, but we are at an advantage because we are from the same university systems.”

The benefits of collaborating with EDU Africa:

“EDU Africa’s goal of providing ‘transformative learning journeys’ is evident through every aspect of the programs they have helped me design. I was able to outline the program I wanted to develop based on my previous time and experiences in South Africa. I knew that I wanted ethical and authentic experiences for my students. I love that EDU Africa works with local businesses that are there to benefit their communities. For example, on our most recent program we added a tour of Alexandra Township. A young entrepreneur who was born and raised in Alexandra ran the tour company and his employees are also from the township.  While on our tour he talked with pride about his community and took us to several other people, in their early 20s who had also started businesses. This experience was one of the major highlights for my students this past year. It was meaningful for them that they saw a township through the eyes of someone who was from there and felt pride in their community. It is quite different from the lens of pity that most people see those who are socially and economically disadvantaged. While he was honest about the lack of resources and infrastructure in the community, he also wanted us to know that people within the community had agency to try and solve their problems.”

Thank you for sharing your experience and expertise, Elizabeth. See you next year!

If you are interested in learning more about South Africa from “the inside out”, take a look at our customizable Faculty-led programs in South Africa.



Elizabeth Ferguson

Elizabeth Ferguson

Elizabeth is a PhD candidate in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University (GMU), where she studies the rhetoric of epidemics, international technical communication, and crisis communication. She is a founding member and current President of the GMU student chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (GMU STC).