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Service-Learning Project Takes LSU College of Art & Design Students to South Africa to Improve Preschools

While many of their fellow students were soaking up the last few rays of summer before the start of the fall semester, a group of students from the LSU College of Art & Design were working halfway across the globe as part of a service-learning project.

The students' work brought them to a rural township south of Cape Town, South Africa, where they used their skills and design expertise to improve the conditions of two preschools.

The 17-day program – facilitated by the College of Art & Design's Office of Community Design and Development, or OCDD – brought together students of various levels from the School of Architecture, Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture and Department of Interior Design and enabled them to earn course credit in the concentration of community design studies.

For most of the program the students lived in the South African town of Noordhoek and traveled to the rural township of Red Hill, where they worked at the Red Hill Preschool redesigning and rebuilding a children's playground and outdoor teaching area. They also designed and built a portable puppet theater, renovated interior office space, designed and installed new signage, and designed and constructed a new raised-bed garden for the school.

"It was a fantastic program and a real life-changing experience for many of our students, who had never been exposed before to that kind of need," said Marsha Cuddeback, director of OCDD. "The poverty is real and palpable, yet the sense of community is strong and hopeful.

The program was the first of several international service-learning programs in Red Hill. The program offers opportunities to sustain collaborative relationships between OCDD and its community partners, assess local needs and align with student-learning outcomes. Next year, Cuddeback and her LSU School of Architecture colleague, Frank Bosworth, plan to work with students on the design and construction of a portable preschool and develop sustainable strategies for sewage treatment, composting and community gardens.

"These are the kinds of opportunities that really set apart the curricula in the College of Art & Design," Cuddeback said. "It's the kind of real-life experience students cannot get in the classroom, and it's doubly rewarding because not only are they earning but they're also making a positive contribution to communities at risk."

Students who took part in the trip said the experience broadened their world view by exposing them to the lifestyle and struggles of a different culture.

"Before the trip, my ‘community' existed in Baton Rouge, on campus in my hometown," said Megan Harris, an undergraduate architecture student. "It was restricted to my friends, family, neighbors and peers. Granted, I am thankful for the opportunities I have as a student here, but I had no idea how my idea of a community would be affected by the time I spent in South Africa and how from here on out, my world would be far larger and more meaningful."

Harris added that visiting Cape Town was a highlight for her during the trip.

"Cape Town is the most extraordinary place I've ever been," she said. "Although stigmatized in light of Apartheid, there is an incredible sense of optimism that resonates in the city. People are moving forward. People are proud.  In their eyes, theirs is the most wonderful city in the world, and it would be difficult for me to disagree.

"One of my favorite moments in Cape Town was after spending an hour or so at a large market. The market was in a plaza surrounded by tall, old buildings and narrow, brick-paved streets. After some shopping, I wandered up one of the streets and found the most delightful café. I could hear sounds of the market and city dwellers passing by and I felt like a true Capetonian after finishing my cup of coffee. The population is so diverse, colorful and proud and, in midst of it all, I felt included in their city. I realized that I could probably stay there forever."

Harris said she "fell in love" with the community while working in Red Hill.

"My expectation was to arrive in this slum and see shanty houses, dusty roads, eclectic objects piled along the streets and small African children wandering about," she said. "I wasn't wrong. I just had no idea that behind this face, there was a functional, beautiful community."

The school is made up of five shipping containers used as a kitchen, classrooms, a playroom and an office, Harris said. The group's mission was to rebuild the playground, along with other smaller projects that would help the school to receive acknowledgement from local social services, which could lead to governmental financial support.

Working at the school each day for two weeks in a row, Harris said she'd "never felt so loved in all of my life."

"The kids loved us unconditionally, despite what color our skin was or who they may have thought we were," she said. "My arms were sore every day from holding and hugging the most beautiful children I've ever seen. Outside of the school, every community member I encountered was either singing, smiling or waving and they were always willing to help us wheelbarrow sand or move rocks. Although they have very little, their things are well taken care of and their attitudes were never ones of desperation, but rather thankfulness."

The group's last day in Red Hill was especially memorable for Harris.

"We were all gathered in the playground, kids were running everywhere playing on the new swing and slide," she said. "Everybody was gathered together for some photographs when we were given a card from the kids and the principal, Yuyeseka. Until this point, we were relatively sure that our presence at the school was more stressful for her than it was helpful. But she gave us a hand-painted card from the kids, including a note. It read, ‘I would like to thank God for giving you this opportunity to come to Red Hill Preschool doing the good, lovely job for my school. It was my dream to see my school growing higher and higher. May God bless you and your family. Thank you with all my heart.' Every time I read the words on that card, I am reminded that my community includes Red Hill. Our contribution to them was so much smaller than the impact their community had on the lives of each of us on the trip. I am forever grateful to Red Hill for opening my eyes to the fact that there are certain universal truths that connect all people, everywhere. My community is here and it is in Red Hill. My responsibility and joy is to expend energy and time into making sure that my community is healthy, happy, and whole."

K. Cristina Navarro, a senior interior design major from Houma, also said the trip was one she will never forget.

"The most important lesson I learned was that a strong sense of community is very important to family happiness," Navarro said. "I was pleasantly surprised to see how the Red Hill community truly was a community. Unlike most American communities, where your neighbors are strangers and everyone goes about their business as an individual entity, the people of Red Hill were like a family. Many community members were willing to help us with our rehabilitation efforts. It was amazing to see everyone contributing with what little supplies they had. I hope Americans can one day learn from them."

Lindsay Boley, an undergraduate design student from St. Amant, said the trip was "truly the experience of a lifetime."

"LSU offered a wonderful opportunity for me to experience, first hand, the world of design," Boley said. "Not only did I relate my field of study to the experience, but also I was able to make a difference in the lives of many children in a small township in South Africa.

"The country was not at all what I expected. When I thought about Africa, the first thing that came to mind was a vision of extreme poverty and devastation. Having this preconceived idea going into the country, I was anxious and nervous about what I might see during the trip. My initial reaction was a mix of emotions as the volunteer van arrived at the small township of Red Hill. I was scared, shocked and depressed. But after getting to know the people living in these less fortunate conditions, I realized how wrong I was in pitying them. They have a great appreciation for what they do have, something I have learned from them. There was also a strong sense of community among the people in Red Hill. I was able to experience a way of life that I didn't even know existed."

Boley said that the experience of visiting South Africa as part of a service-learning project through LSU was something that "changed my life significantly."

"It was my first real-world design project, and I couldn't have asked for a better way of learning the design process in a culture so different from my own," she said.

Cuddeback said an exhibit chronicling the group's experiences will be featured on the atrium wall in the Design Building beginning Wednesday, Oct. 27, and will be on display through Thursday, Nov. 11. The exhibit will feature images, text and video footage captured during the trip.

LSU's Office of Community Design and Development gives students a place to build on classroom knowledge, applying the techniques they've learned and a chance to gain practical experience. OCDD works with community and government organizations on research, planning, design projects, and public awareness and education. Focus areas include town planning, urban design, architectural program development, site planning and analysis, architectural design, construction management, research, consultation and public education.

For more information on the LSU College of Art & Design, visit http://coad.lsu.edu.