Cultural connections spark quality enhancement

Before most Americans had heard the buzz of a vuvuzela, MCG Associate Provost Shelley Mishoe stood alone in a South African airport, without a friend in sight.

Arriving in Cape Town on an exchange through her American Council on Education fellowship, she wondered if anyone would show to pick her up. She and the other ACE fellows were to tour the country, observing how its colleges and universities face their unique challenges.

Former MCG President Dan Rahn nominated Mishoe for a 2009-10 ACE fellowship, thrusting her into a grueling application process of referrals, interviews and project proposals – all for less than a few dozen spots. Fellows are matched with a host institution. Over a year, they participate in meetings and events, special projects and assignments, seminars, national meetings and campus visits, mentored by a team of experienced administrators. Mishoe’s host institution, Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., sprang for the African safari to enhance the experience further.

“Luckily, I had read about South African culture before I went,” she said. “And I knew not to take the taxi; to be patient,” she said, with a broad grin. Someone would eventually be there to pick her up, as she had gleaned from her readings. And someone did – running on what South Africans jokingly call “African time.”

South Africa is what is termed a “low-context culture,” which means that specifics are not required. Appointment times are approximate. Directions can be vague and signage absent. The United States’ “high context culture” requires that even mattresses come with a two-page instruction manual.

But Mishoe discovered cultural differences even before she hopped on that plane – and much closer to home. Wofford, a private liberal-arts college, contrasted sharply with her public health sciences university experience. When she immersed herself in Wofford’s culture, policies and decision-making processes, she found that communication differences can stymie efficiency no matter the continent or college.

For example, Woffard colleagues often failed to reply to emails. What at first seemed like a mild slight became an opportunity when Mishoe discovered the college’s best employment perk: the faculty dining hall. Meals served on fine china at rich, dark wood tables enabled the Wofford faculty to congregate each day and discuss business face-to-face. Her colleagues didn’t respond to emails simply because they’d see the sender over sandwiches. Once Mishoe embraced the lunch ritual, communication cleared.

The experience sensitized her to the broader communication issues she faced during her fellowship, such as some cultures’ aversion to eye contact. The gesture—a sign of attention and respect in the United States—is considered overly forward in some cultures.

Sensitivity to South African culture kept Dr. Mishoe from panicking at the airport – but it didn’t keep her from making other mistakes. For instance, she and her colleagues once showed up in business-casual capris to a Sunday-best soirée. But Mishoe was a quick learner; when some of her colleagues expressed frustration after their South African counterparts failed to respond toemails, Mishoe drew on her Wofford experience to advise them to join them at lunch.

Despite the differences she encountered, Mishoe came back from her fellowship with a new appreciation for higher-education challenges across the globe. As expected, she found campuses struggling with issues unique to their institution—such as the funding challenges associated with a private college such as Wofford, or the emphasis on HIV-AIDS education in South Africa, due to the high incidence of the disease on the continent. But her take-home discovery was that similarities outweigh differences.

“I found that the issues they struggle with are the pretty much the same: diversity, international education, the global economy, preparing graduates to succeed, student outcomes, enhancing student learning, and funding,” Mishoe said.

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