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Education off the main road

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Paul C. PribbenowAs I write these words for the summer issue of the Augsburg Now—which includes stories illustrating Augsburg’s vision of educating global citizens—I am in Oslo, Norway, attending an international conference on the links between higher education and democracy, and also spending time with Augsburg students studying peace and conflict mediation at the University of Oslo. I am struck by how relevant Augsburg’s longstanding commitment to what I call an “education off the main road” is to preparing our students for life in the 21st century. A simple story illustrates my point.

In a trip last fall to Augsburg’s Center for Global Education (CGE) campus in Windhoek, Namibia, I remember looking out at the sparkling lights as I was hosted at a dinner in an ultra-modern restaurant high above the city. All was well, it seemed, as I waited for my dinner companions to arrive.

But the view from our perch above the city, nestled in an obviously affluent subdivision of the burgeoning city, belied my experiences earlier in the day. I had witnessed the remnants of an apartheid system. Formerly separate cemeteries for whites, colored, and blacks. Housing that was clearly demarcated by tribal class. Primary and secondary schools stratified by social class. A sprawling tin village—the so-called “informal settlements”—in which tens of thousands of Namibians lived in squalor, unable to find work after they arrived in the city and were left to their own devices to survive. Health clinics with waiting rooms full of women seeking both prenatal care and HIV tests. Non-governmental organizations struggling to serve the needs of indigenous people whose rights were neglected. The stark contrasts of the day were mindbending.

My dinner companions arrived—a labor activist and a teacher working to improve education for indigenous people—and as I described our day in Windhoek, one of them commented that he was grateful I had witnessed these contrasts because too many outsiders come to Namibia and travel only “the main road,” from which all seems well. I had left that main road and experienced the real Namibia.

My experience that day was a snapshot of what our CGE students encounter each semester in Namibia as they participate in intense experiences that open their eyes to the life-transforming dynamics of life in this developing country. Through extended homestays in both urban and rural areas, internships with organizations doing important social and educational work, classes that feature speakers who have firsthand experience of the tensions in Namibia’s life, and opportunities for significant interaction with Namibian people and culture, our students experience life off the main road in this remarkable country, just 22 years after it declared independence.

And when these students return home to the U.S., we know they carry with them knowledge and experiences of this place and its good people that will shape the decisions they make about their own lives and what they might be called to do in the world. Some may return to Africa, perhaps as medical workers or teachers. But most will not, and, for them, we trust and know that their experiences off the main road in Namibia will help them understand their own privilege in an increasingly complex world—privilege that must be named and then put to responsible use in the search for equity and justice, both in their personal lives and in the systems they inhabit.

Off the main road in Namibia, off the main road wherever Augsburg offers its distinctive education for global citizenship. I’m only beginning to understand how critical our work as a college is in transforming the lives of students and contributing to a different vision of our common future as global citizens.

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