Southwestern Professor Returns From Two Years of Teaching in Ghana on Fulbright Award
Suzanne Buchele won’t have much sympathy any more for students who don’t turn their work in on time.
Buchele, an associate professor of computer science, returned to Southwestern this fall after two years of teaching students in the West African country of Ghana. There, she says, students face real hardships such as a lack of power for computers. “If students in Ghana can get their work in on time, students here have no excuse,” Buchele says.
Buchele received a Fulbright award to teach at Ashesi University College, a private liberal arts college in Ghana’s capital city of Accra. The university was founded in 2002 by Patrick Awuah, a native of Ghana who earned an engineering degree from Swarthmore College and later became financially independent after working for Microsoft.
Although Buchele was originally supposed to spend just a year in Ghana, her Fulbright grant was renewed so she ended up spending two. During her second year at Ashesi, she was asked to serve as the university’s acting dean of academic affairs.
“It was an amazing process to be part of a new school,” Buchele says. “We made several new policy decisions each week.” Buchele helped Ashesi put new procedures in place for transfer students advising, and registration. Selected classes at the University adopted an examination honor system while she was there, the first such honor code in West Africa. The university also almost doubled in size – from just over 200 to just under 400 students. It plans to move to a new campus that can accommodate 2,000 students within five years.
Buchele says Patrick Awuah, who serves as Ashesi’s president, is the most amazing person she has ever met. “He is an infectious leader,” she says.
During her second year in Ghana, Buchele also helped with a pilot project to distribute computers to children in Ghana through the Massachusetts-based foundation One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). The organization distributed computers to 40 students in a fourth-grade school in Accra.
As a result of her involvement with the OLPC project, Buchele had the opportunity to meet the president of Ghana, as well as the ministers of education, finance and communications. She also learned quite a bit about the educational system in Ghana. In addition to infrastructure problems, she says there is a shortage of qualified teachers, school buildings and textbooks.
Students face many other obstacles as well. While children in Ghana are technically entitled to a free basic education up to junior high school, many of them have to help their families in the fields or carry water to their houses. The monthly household income in some villages in Ghana is only about $10 a month, which makes it difficult for families to purchase the supplies and uniforms children need for school.
“The laptop program is good because it gives children access to education even if they can’t get to school,” Buchele says. (For more information on OLPC, visit http://laptop.org/)
Buchele plans to give a presentation on her experience with OLPC in Ghana at the 8th Annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, which will be held in Colorado in October. She will also give campus and communitywide talks about her experiences, and plans to write some papers on her experience teaching at the university in Ghana.
Buchele taught software engineering at Ashesi, as well as computer graphics, computer organization, discrete mathematics and helped with the laboratory component of programming I. She says students in Africa were more eager to participate in class than students at Southwestern, but they do not enter college with as good critical thinking skills. This stems from the fact that their pre-collegiate education focuses heavily on rote memorization as opposed to teaching critical thinking.
Buchele says the Fulbright experience has made her a much better teacher. In addition to learning how to encourage more classroom participation and interaction, she says she learned a lot about global issues she can address in her classes.
“It was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she says.