Ukuhamba Kukufunda (Traveling is Learning): A South African Experience / by Laura Tate McHugh

Posted March 29th, 2010 at 12:42 pm.

Editors’ Note

Below is an excerpt from Laura Tate McHugh’s convocation speech, delivered at Bryn Mawr College’s fall 2009 convocation ceremony. Laura spoke as a representative of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, where she is in her second year of the Master of Social Service program, pursuing a concentration in policy, practice, and advocacy.

It is impossible for me to reflect on what it means to have the opportunity to pursue a graduate degree in social work at Bryn Mawr College without touching on what I was doing before I came to graduate school last fall. After working several years in program development for a charter school serving out-of-school youth in North Philadelphia, I spent seven months volunteering with an international women’s movement called The Grail in Kleinmond, South Africa. The focus of The Grail’s efforts worldwide is to harness women’s creative energy for spiritual search, social transformation, global solidarity, and ecological sustainability. The Grail in South Africa, in addition to its own local community organizing campaigns, provides intensive training and development education for women, mostly from developing countries, who are committed to organizing for social change in their home communities.

Although I had participated in service-oriented projects over many years, never before had I experienced being part of something as powerful as the movement for social change that thrives in post-apartheid South Africa. Through participation in various trainings and community organizing efforts, across lines of race, class, gender, and ethnicity and in solidarity with women from around the world, I saw clearly for the first time the imperative of interconnectedness in the ongoing struggle for social justice in what is becoming an increasingly intimate global community. As I listened to the stories of the women around me, learned from their experiences, and at times discovered surprisingly similar realities in the U.S., I began to reflect more seriously on the desperate need for collective, policy-driven responses and strategies to address what I now understand are really global social problems.

As I observed the still relatively new post-apartheid government continue to evolve right in front of my eyes and had the chance to witness some of the most charged and complicated social and public policy debates I could imagine, I came to appreciate more concretely the delicate relationship that exists between government, policymakers, academics, and direct service providers. My experience in South Africa highlighted the complexities and intricacies of the political process in a way that I had not previously appreciated in the U.S. I came away with a sense of hope from working alongside people who are diligently building their new democracies from the ground up. I also came to appreciate that the work for social justice, whether at home or abroad, is about more than just “doing what is right.” Social justice demands that we intelligently and systematically find ways to secure our collective future stability as a global community. Part of that challenge, of course, is that there are often competing views, which are strongly held, about what is “right.”

Problems such as those that South Africa currently faces are not unique to the continent of Africa. The plight of those who are marginalized and focused primarily on survival is becoming a daily reality for even more of the world’s population, including too many of those in our own country. Their reality is part of our own. Rich and poor, wealthy countries and developing countries, and urban and rural communities are all interconnected. And we are all at risk if we cannot reverse the negative effects of inadequate and poorly designed and executed national as well as global, social, political, and economic policies. Globalization is, in some respects, as much of a challenge for middle-class and working-class Americans as it is for the rest of the world. More than ever before, we, an educated generation that is growing into a consciousness of global citizenship, will have greater opportunity and greater responsibility. Whether we are studying in the disciplines of social work, history, health, or biology, we will be challenged to apply more than our knowledge and capabilities in addressing matters of global injustice and insecurity. We must also develop the will to ask the difficult questions, challenge the status quo, and apply new strategies until we can see results such as more broadly shared health and prosperity.

This would be impossible without graduate schools like Bryn Mawr’s, which has always been at the forefront in recognizing the importance of this “big picture” in education and which is prepared to challenge us as students and professionals, across all disciplines, to find creative, more comprehensive ways to respond to ever-changing, increasingly complex global issues. Over the last year, Bryn Mawr helped me interpret and ground my South African experience and earlier experiences in ways I could not have accomplished on my own, as well as helped me draw appropriate connections to the social justice efforts I am passionate about here at home. I have relied on my professors and fellow students to channel and provide structure to the new energy I brought with me from my time abroad.

At the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, I am surrounded by like-minded students and faculty who believe that our ability to process complex information and think critically in the classroom is only as relevant and as meaningful as our commitment to demonstrate actual progress and to produce real results for the people who need it the most. Most importantly, with its Quaker roots and its focus on educating historically marginalized populations, Bryn Mawr has always recognized the critical need for education with a conscience and is forever challenging us as students to think more thoughtfully and critically about the work we do, why we do it, and what we hope to accomplish with our degrees when we leave.

I believe that all of us who have the distinct privilege to attend an institution like Bryn Mawr have an important legacy to live up to, and I find that Bryn Mawr continues to provoke in me a sense of urgent social responsibility to utilize my own capabilities to seek out new, more innovative solutions to the problems that we face in our country and our world today. I am looking forward to embarking on that journey in collaboration with all members of the Bryn Mawr community.

Laura Tate McHugh will graduate from Bryn Mawr with her M.S.S. in policy, practice, and advocacy in May 2010. She earned a B.A. in sociology and visual arts from Fordham University in 2002 and has been working in the field of urban education in both New York City and Philadelphia for nearly 10 years. A Philly native, she hopes to continue working on public education reform efforts at the policy level in Philadelphia when she graduates.

Filed under: Issue 4 by Diana Vergara

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