Faculty Spotlight: Leo Mapira, IES Abroad Cape Town

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IES Abroad
May 25, 2016

cape town, south africa

Leo Mapira has been a faculty member at IES Abroad Cape Town for more than a year. He has a B.S. in Labor, Organizational Psychology, and Human Resource Management; an M.S. in Industrial Sociology; and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Industrial Sociology, all from the University of Cape Town (UCT). Leo is a Guest Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Education Development at UCT, and recently spoke at the Minority-Serving Institutions Global Education Summit and Diversity Abroad Conference in Atlanta, GA. Originally from Zimbabwe, Leo speaks Shona and English and is currently learning Xhosa.


IES Abroad: What courses can IES Abroad students in Cape Town take with you?

LM: I teach a course within the disciplines of Economics and Sociology that integrates elements of service learning. The course, SL/EC/SO 335: Polity, Community Development, Urban Life in South Africa, is offered in both the fall and spring semesters and includes course-related excursions to three different sites.

IES AbroadIES Abroad: What makes Cape Town a particularly relevant city to study Sociology?

LM: Cape Town, and South Africa as a whole, has a rich history and diverse cultural and linguistic heritage. South Africa’s history continues to shape the current political, social, and economic landscape. Cape Town is a vibrant, world-class city and its current socio-economic dynamics related to inequality and cultural diversity make it a fertile ground for exploring sociological issues, such as development, class struggle, and social change; industrial society and trade unionism; and identity and gender. Studying these sociological issues from a South African context enables students to have a different perspective and consciousness about their home cities and the United States as a whole.

IES Abroad: Why is service learning such an important piece of the Polity, Community Development, and Urban Life in South Africa course?

LM: Service learning in the Polity course is inspired in part by Karl Marx’s assertion that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it". I strongly believe that teaching that is confined to the classroom is inadequate in a world that is grappling with so many complex social and economic challenges. Through service learning and community research projects, we are able to bridge a gap between theory and practice. Thus, service learning enables students to learn beyond the classroom by working alongside local communities in Cape Town and become engaged scholars who contribute toward the social and economic development of society. In addition, working with community members on various community initiatives provide students with an opportunity for intercultural exchange. Our service learning placements in Cape Town are helping us to build a generation of responsible citizens, committed to serve.

study in cape townIES Abroad: What is the most interesting question you’ve received from an IES Abroad student in your course? What was your response?

LM: Most of the students I teach are very inquisitive. There are a lot of things U.S. students find very peculiar. For example, a student asked me why the people of Kibera, Kenya, resisted the development of new housing units that are better than the shacks they live in. For the student, it does not make sense to reject a formal house. I usually respond to such question by asking questions that help students to answer his or her own question. In this case, I asked the student about the extent to which those community members were participating and involved in decision making, to which the student said community members were not drivers of their own change. This helped the student to understand the dangers of imposed development projects, as African people generally do not trust externally-driven projects.

I am proud of students who are hungry for understanding. For me, this is a positive thing as it gets us into a more academically grounded discussion on different worldviews, cultural diversity, and development trajectories.

IES Abroad: What advice would you give to a student preparing to study abroad in Cape Town?

LM: Studying in Cape Town provides students with an opportunity for intercultural exchange. However, the intercultural exchange does not always happen automatically. It requires great effort on the part of the students to immerse him/herself into local situations, groups, and cultural events. Students need to open their minds and accept the cultural diversity of the world as an opportunity for intercultural understanding. Above all, I urge all students preparing to come to Cape Town to have specific and measurable goals about what they want to achieve and how they will achieve those goals while abroad. This will help them to make good use of their time in Cape Town.

IES Abroad: Describe your teaching style and some of the innovative approaches you’ve used in the classroom.

study abroad in south africa

LM: My teaching style is based on three interrelated teaching approaches: recognition of prior learning, peer learning, and building on everyday knowledge of students. I strongly believe that students have prior knowledge of development issues we explore in the Polity course. This knowledge is either informed by students’ lived experiences in home communities, or informed by prior studies and/or engagements at home schools. Therefore, in every seminar we start off with a discussion of the concepts and approaches to community development in ways that students already understand. Then, we build that discussion into a more academically grounded discussion.

I also have to make sure that I help students to move from their everyday observations at field trips, service learning sites, and other excursions to a more abstract and academic level. In addition, students teach each other through presentations. A presenting student responds to questions by fellow students, and vice versa. My students become co-producers of knowledge, not just passive learners. Last, but not least, we do a lot of role-plays and quizzes in class, and this helps to explicate some of the issues we focus on. These approaches have proved to be more effective than consistently ‘Power-Pointing’ students.

IES Abroad: What is the most important takeaway you hope students leave their study abroad experience in South Africa with?

LM: I hope that students leave South Africa with a different consciousness, about themselves and their identities in a globalizing world with plural cultural identities. In light of their exposure to cultural diversity at the University of Cape Town, and Cape Town in general, students will understand that there is no one-size-fits-all formula of life. Their identity(s) will be brought into conversation with other cultural identities, and I hope that they leave South Africa diversity-literate and conscious about other world views apart from theirs—worlds that looked very unfamiliar but have now become familiar.

Furthermore, I would like students to understand that as global citizens they can make a difference anywhere in the world, not just their home countries.

IES Abroad: What has been your proudest teaching moment thus far?

LM: Convening the Polity course has been my proudest teaching moment because of the impact I have made on individuals and communities. I am proud to be part of the change happening in local communities (our development partners) and among our students. Communities appreciate IES Abroad Cape Town’s community development efforts and encourage us to continue assisting them with project ideas and student volunteers. My pride also comes from my students’ achievements by the end of the course. There is nothing more rewarding than shaping young minds.

Study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, to take Leo’s course!

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