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Crossroads Africa

In the 2008-2009 academic year, Colby-Sawyer College welcomed its first Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence, Isaac Nyamongo, from the University of Nairobi in Kenya. However, this was not the first time that the College and the University of Nairobi in Kenya have shared a connection.

From 1962 until 1972, Dr. Everett M. Woodman served as president of Colby Junior College.  Before coming to the college, President Woodman worked in various positions abroad including Cultural Affairs Officer in Madras, India, Attaché at the US Embassy in New Delhi, and Director of the Educational Exchange Program for India.  As a result, when Woodman arrived at Colby Junior College, he recognized the need for an international perspective on education; one of the most notable programs that resulted from this emphasis was the partnership between Colby Junior College’s Secretarial Science program and Operation Crossroads Africa.

Operation Crossroads Africa was established in 1958 by Dr. James H. Robinson.  A forerunner to the Peace Corps, Crossroads Africa was established to allow young Americans and Africans to work together on a grassroots level.  Collaboration between Colby Junior College and Crossroads Africa began in 1966 when President Woodman and Dr. Robinson met at a three-day convocation held at the College; during that time, they discussed the need for secretarial improvement in Africa.  Recognizing that Colby Junior College had a strong Secretarial Science program, President Woodman recommended a partnership between the College and Crossroads Africa.

A four part plan was established; the objectives of this program were to upgrade secretarial standards and procedures in Africa, to establish a secretarial training program for Africans and to produce qualified African secretaries in East Africa for service in business, commerce, industry, and government.  In 1967, Phase One began when Secretarial Science department head, Marnie Kurtz, and Colby Junior College student, Lindy Fisher, conducted a survey of secretarial work in Kenya and Tanzania.  They spent six weeks in Nairobi and two weeks in Dar es Salaam.  They visited seven secretarial schools that had a combined total of 790 students enrolled.  Kurtz and Fisher were surprised to discover that of these 790 students only 200 were African.  Additional findings revealed that the majority of personal secretaries working in both the Kenyan government and the private sector were Asian or European due to the lack of secretarial skills and English language skills in African secretaries.

Kurtz and Fisher reported their findings to both Colby Junior College and Crossroads Africa and a pilot project was implemented in the summer of 1968.  Two Colby Junior College faculty members (including Kurtz), six students, and an ESL teacher established an eight week course at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.  The course was entitled, “Secretarial Improvement Course for African Office Employees” and was available to anyone with at least six months of office experience.  24 women were accepted the first year, but response to the program was so popular that applications were held over for the following year.  In 1969, the program was continued with the addition of a Typing Refresher Course for 25 students selected by the Ministry of Labor’s office.  The program would run from 1967 until 1973 when the final two phases of the project were completed.  By that time, several of the African students had come to Colby Junior College and other American secretarial science programs to take classes and had returned to Kenya to teach their peers.  Also, that final year, an African sponsored and run training program was established in Kenya.  The Colby Junior College Secretarial Science program had completed its mission and left Kenya confident that their students now had all the tools that they needed to teach future generations of secretaries.

However, this program was also a learning experience for the Colby Junior College students most of whom had never been to Africa before and didn’t know what to expect.  Many of their parents wrote concerned letters to the school about their children’s safety in Kenya, but all of these fears were quickly removed by Marnie Kurtz, who oversaw the project during its entirety.  The students stayed in hotels in Nairobi and served as teacher’s aides to the two faculty members.  They assisted students in classes on shorthand, transcription, typing, grooming practices, job etiquette, and interviewing skills.  In addition to the work these women did in the classroom, The Colby Junior College students also got to experience African culture.  One student, Marian Fernandes, shares, “We had a very busy night life.  We dated all types of people: Africans, Asians, Europeans, Americans, and Canadians.  Each introduced us to a new facet of their environment and explained their different customs and beliefs” (Colby Courier, 10/8/1968, page 3).  In addition to their nighttime activities, the students spent their weekends on safari or exploring different tribal cultures on planned trips around the countryside.

The experience was an eye opener for the Colby Junior College students.  When asked how they liked living in Nairobi and how it differed from a US city, one student responded, “I found adjusting to Nairobi difficult, the longer I was there, the easier it became.  The whole city is a completely different culture—being a minority in a black country is really strange” (Evaluation, Crossroads Africa, RG 23.10.1, Colby-Sawyer College; Cleveland Colby Colgate Archives; New London, NH).  Other responses included that it was friendly, warm, slower paced, and that there was a lack of modern conveniences.  All agreed when they returned that Crossroads Africa was a positive experience and one of the best of their lives.


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