Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pursuit of Higher Education: Illusion of Equal Opportunity

in Lusaka, Zambia

The college search process is an almost ascertain part of many American students lives as they near the end of their secondary educations. University of California Santa Barbara, Indiana University, University of Tennessee, University of South Florida, Miami University, Ohio University. I visited five different states, thousands of miles apart, over the time-span of a few months, all in the search for a university that would be just the right “fit” for me. Four years and some odd months later, I still remember the college search processclearly. There was a lot of travel, a number of campus tours, meetings with department heads, and speaking to current students about their experiences. I was excited for what my future had in store, and not once did it cross my mind that I would do something after high school other than attend a university.

I feel the expectation to achieve post-secondary educa tion, whether at a four-year university, community college, or vocational school, is fantastically engrained in the culture of the United States. Not only do I believe that many U.S. students take these opportunities for higher education for granted, they fail to seize their education, instead merely sailing through their academic careers. Students in the U.S. also fail to acknowledge that the opportunities for higher education are unequal, domestically and abroad. There is an illusion of equal opportunity.

Furthermore, some students in the U.S. simply attend universities as a result of pressure and expectations from parents, guidance counselors, or peers. A number of freshman students across the country enroll as “undecided” in their major area of study. Even students who do enroll with a selected major will often change it at some point during their undergraduate careers. None of the university students I spoke with in Zambia enrolled as an undecided major, and from what I see, that is the norm.

Attending university in Africa is a major feat, and one that, as far as I can tell, is not undertaken lightly. The students I have spoken with in Lusaka enrolled at The University of Zambia (UNZA) with clear goals. Zambian students take their education seriously, they found the thought of skipping a class outlandish. I find this amusing as I think back to some of my larger lecture classes early on in my college career, where most days I was easily able to find a seat any place I wished, but, when exam day rolled around suddenly the room was jam-packed with students.

UNZA students and Ohio University students mix and mingle while walking to class.

Less schools, less opportunity

Zambia is relative to the size of Texas. While Texas has a complex education system made up of more than 77 universities, Zambia has only about nine universities. Texas has a much larger population than Zambia, about 11 million more people. However, even Illinois, which has about the same size population, at around 12.4 million, has more than 75 universities. To even have the opportunity to attend a university in Zambia is prestigious and a notable accomplishment, as the lack of educational establishments results in a lack of opportunity for attendance.

I find myself highly impressed with the motivation and commitment of the students I met at UNZA. Not to say I am not as equally impressed with some students in the states and at my home university. However, the UNZA students seem fully aware of the fortune of their opportunity for higher education in a country where the school life expectancy is 7 years for females and 8 for males, while U.S. students seemingly take it for granted. I think that level of awareness and appreciation drives them to be successful, motivates them to not skip classes, and learn as much they can, while they can. Many U.S. students don’t bat an eye at the thought of skipping a class, especially if they feel they either don’t need it for the career fields they hope to enter or believe they can successfully pass the course without attending. I think this is a huge mistake on the part of American students. We should all learn from the Zambian students, and try to take away as much as we can from the opportunities we are presented. Therefore, the next time you think about skipping that economics class because you’re majoring in journalism and you “don’t need it,” consider the fact that many people in the world don’t even have the opportunities for such intellectual growth. Advance your knowledge and understanding in any subject area you can, and appreciate the fact that you have the opportunities at all.

I am currently a student at The University of Zambia, attending seminars in Lusaka as a part of an annual journalism study abroad program put on through cooperation with UNZA, Ohio University, The Institute for International Journalism, and the Ohio University Office of Education Abroad.

Brenda Evans, another Ohio University student, and I, on our first day of class at UNZA.

UNZA students sit outside to enjoy the weather between classes.

Another OU colleague, Tom Ginley, and I in front of The University of Zambia campus map.

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