June 09, 2005

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A south african's impressions of SFU

My time at SFU confirmed what I have long suspected. Although our universities might be located on different continents, the issues surrounding media and communication in the higher education arena are universal.
Nicole Chidrawi
Nicole Chidrawi

By: Nicole Chidrawi

I sit in a bustling coffee shop at SFU's new UniverCity Cornerstone building and I watch life playing itself out in front of me.

I see tree-covered mountains sprinkled with snow in the background and eager students of all shapes and sizes, races and genders, making their way to and from lectures. The level of noise in the coffee shop seems to rise as students compete with a hard-at-work coffee machine, debating serious issues and discussing their even more serious social lives. The roar of enlightenment can be heard and seen in everything around me.

The scene that continues to play itself out over the afternoon, both inside and outside the coffee shop, reminds me of home. Home is in fact thousands of kilometres and a 20-hour plane ride away - located at the very tip of Africa.

Home is also the department of communication and development at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa, where I work as a writer and editor.

As part of the SFU international staff mobility initiative (staff can submit proposals for an international short-term placement), I was given the opportunity to spend three weeks at SFU to gain a better understanding of how the media and public relations department operates. I wanted to undertake some best-practice research so that I could return to UCT with a sense of how colleagues in a similar field, at a different institution, do business.

Observing what was happening at SFU, whether it was watching students in a coffee shop or attending meetings and presentations with various university individuals, I was immediately struck by the many similarities - similarities between the universities, intentions, problems, solutions, campaigns and geography to name but a few.

Cape Town is very similar to Vancouver, only much smaller and much warmer - the average winter temperature a mild 15 degrees. It too has the perfect combination of mountains and sea (ours have big waves and Great White sharks), which lends itself to an outdoor lifestyle. Cape Town is also a melting pot of cultures and the city has something to offer everyone.

My bus ride to SFU everyday reminded me of how similar the universities are in terms of location. SFU is situated on top of a mountain. UCT is situated on the side of a mountain. Both offer students, staff and visitors panoramic views of their respective cities, while their steep inclines provide a heart-pounding workout opportunity for the energetic few.

UCT is much older than SFU. Last year it celebrated its 175th anniversary and it is South Africa's oldest university. It is one of Africa's leading teaching and research institutions and it boasts a population of 20,000 students. Three thousand international students from more than 92 different countries have chosen to study for their degrees at UCT.

The university employs approximately 4,500 staff members - 56 per cent are academic and research staff and 44 per cent are administrative and support staff. Sixty per cent of UCT academic staff hold doctorates and a high proportion of UCT staff are leaders in their respective fields.

An analysis of enrolment figures shows that 51 per cent of UCT students are white and 49 per cent are black (including African, coloured and Indian students). The gender split is exactly 50-50.

UCT has four campuses spread around the beautiful city of Cape Town (aka the Mother City), which house the institution's six faculties. Students can undertake both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in the fields of science, humanities, commerce, law, health sciences and engineering and the built environment.

The university is in contact with more than 62,000 alumni of whom 42,000 are in South Africa and has produced three Nobel Laureates - Sir Aaron Klug and Alan MacLeod Cormack, whose research endeavours were in the fields of chemistry and physics, respectively, and more recently, acclaimed author JM Coetzee.

My time at SFU confirmed what I have long suspected. Although our universities might be located on different continents, the issues surrounding media and communication in the higher education arena are universal.

Both the media and public relations department at SFU and the department of communication and development at UCT have the same goal. It is their job to disseminate information and communicate with university stakeholders. It is also their responsibility to uphold and protect the image of the institution and to ensure the universities get the widest possible media coverage.

What I found was that both departments employ hardworking individuals who have a passion for what they do. They have to, as they operate in a fast-paced, deadline-driven environment that is unrelenting.

While SFU produces a biweekly newspaper, UCT has a weekly publication called the Monday Paper. Both are a means of communicating what is happening on campus. The Monday Paper, much like SFU News, combines general news items with longer research articles. Small differences include the fact that UCT produces its publication in colour and has a sports page, while SFU News has regular columns, such as Media Bytes, that I will recommend UCT consider introducing.

SFU's media and public relations team must be commended for their proactive approach to creating a media profile for the institution. Their constant targeting of the media with possible research stories and university experts who can talk to the media regarding topical issues pays huge dividends for a university that has to compete with more established counterparts.

The team takes this initiative one step further by offering a media training program for staff. This is something that UCT has previously discussed but has yet to implement. I hope that my new-found knowledge in this area will make a good case for the necessity of such a program back home.

SFU has also successfully maintained links with alumni through their aq publication and monthly alumni newsletter. UCT has a lot to learn in this regard as our previous communication initiatives have lacked the depth that SFU presents.

U.S. psychologist and educator Jerome Bruner once said that education must be not only a transmission of culture, but also a provider of alternative views of the world and a strengthener of the will to explore them.

This perfectly sums up the value of the staff mobility initiative. For three weeks I was fortunate to be educated, in the truest sense of the word. Although I did not attend lectures or submit assignments, I was exposed to a different culture within a similar higher education environment. My perspectives were widened as I was provided with alternative views of the world (I got to see my first ice hockey game), and I return home with a strengthened will to explore them.

Many would say the hard work is just about to begin. I have to return home filled with new ideas and enthusiasm to colleagues who have not seen the world as I have seen it. Herein lies the challenge and I look forward to embracing it with renewed vigour.

Nicole Chidrawi is a writer and editor in the department of communication and development at the University of Cape Town. She spent three weeks at SFU in March as part of the SFU international staff mobility initiative.

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