Engaging Globally: Student Co-Curricular Involvement and Learning in South Africa
The Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education program and Nelson Mandela University (NMU) in South Africa can boast such a sustained partnership, beginning in 1998 and continuing to this day.
University partnerships can often be measured in months or even years, but only a few can look back over multiple decades of collaboration. The Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education (HALE) program and Nelson Mandela University (NMU) in South Africa can boast such a sustained partnership, beginning in 1998 and continuing to this day. Associate Professor Matthew Wawrzynski became involved with the project more than a decade ago, and with his co-leaders at NMU, has taken it in exciting new directions regarding co-curricular involvement and learning outcomes. Wawrzynski helped spearhead the creation of a student experiences survey that has since become an important part of how NMU conceptualizes and manages student involvement.
The origins of the survey can be traced to a specific need identified by the partners at NMU. Youth unemployment in South Africa was exceptionally high, reaching an unemployment rate of 63% of the youth labor force in 2014 (Cassim & Oosthuizen, 2014). Unemployed youth were disproportionately likely to be Black, and the Eastern Cape, the home province of NMU, had one of the largest youth unemployment rates in the country (Yu, 2013). Not only were recent graduates of NMU struggling to find jobs, but current students could not find internships to develop professional skills and build their curricula vitae, further complicating job-searches. In response, NMU developed a Co-Curricular Record that identified specific learning outcomes gained through participation in cocurricular activities. Students could then build their curricula vitae by drawing direct connections between cocurricular involvement and skills such as communication, collaboration, adaptability, and social responsibility.
Wawrzynski and the HALE-NMU partnership became an integral part of the Co-Curricular Record by creating the student experiences survey in [YEAR]. The survey is administered annually, and though it has undergone multiple iterations, the major goals are consistent. First and foremost, the survey aims to measure how co-curricular involvement affects certain learning outcomes identified by the Co-Curricular Record. Every official student organization is listed on the survey, so students can select the organizations of which they are a part, as well as any leadership positions they hold. Students then self-report, through a series of questions, the degree to which they feel involvement in these organizations helped them obtain specific learning outcomes. Second, the survey measures students’ sense of belonging at NMU. Given the history of segregation during apartheid, creating the campus as a space that is welcoming to students who were historically excluded has proven to be a difficult yet vital component of higher education reform (Wawrzynski, Heck, & Remley, 2012). Finally, the survey attempts to ascertain what barriers to involvement students face. Some examples of common barriers are lack of transportation, financial constraints, or scheduling conflicts.
The student experiences survey has been invaluable to NMU’s approach to student involvement, both validating current work and allowing for evidence-based change. Wawrzynski and a team of MSU graduate students recently compiled data from multiple years of the survey to trace trends over the past 3 years. NMU students consistently reported strong learning outcomes as a result of co-curricular involvement during this period. Perhaps most surprisingly, the reported values of the outcomes were similar across different student organizations. The same learning outcomes were generally rated the highest in terms of attainment, specifically responsibility, listening, appreciating differences, self-confidence, and commitment to personal ethics, regardless of the type of organization. The similarities in learning outcomes indicate the type of organization mattered less than simply becoming involved in any type of student organization. Wawrzynski and the graduate students presented these findings to the NMU community, spurring conversations on the perceived and actual value of co-curricular involvement on campus.
The survey also helps the NMU partners consider its use of resources to remove barriers to student engagement. After students identified lack of affordable and safe transportation as the major barrier, NMU created a shuttle system that runs after student organizations typically meet. Students also said class scheduling conflicts kept them from attending meetings. As a result, NMU created time in its campus-wide schedule to accommodate opportunities to engage in cocurricular experiences. The dedicated student affairs professionals of NMU, in partnership with Wawrzynski and HALE, are making enormous strides to enrich student life based upon feedback from the students themselves.
The HALE-NMU partnership contributes to knowledge production more generally as well. Through Wawrzynski’s leadership, his research team has used the vast amount of original data from the survey to help make sense of student engagement broadly in South Africa. The needs and assets of NMU guide the questions, and culturally relevant frameworks based on the experiences of South African students inform the analyses. Current publications in press cover topics such as political activism, religious student organizations, and women in STEM. Wawrzynski, his research team, and the NMU partners continue to make substantial gains in our understanding of student engagement in South Africa.
Cassim, A. & Oosthuizen, M. (2014, August 15). The state of youth unemployment in South Africa. The Brookings Institution: Africa in Focus. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2014/08/15/the-state-of-youth-unemployment-in-south-africa/
Wawrzynski, M. R., Heck, A. M., & Remley, C. T. (2012). Student engagement in South African higher education. Journal of College Student Development, 53(1), 106 – 123. DOI: 10.1353/csd.2012.0007
Yu, D. (2013). Youth unemployment in South Africa revisited. Development Southern Africa, 30(4 – 5), 545 – 563. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0376835X.2013.830964