A journey from Nebraska to Africa and back

Michael Chipps (right), president of Northeast Community College, and Lyle Kathol, the college's vice president of educational services, speak to students at Norfolk Schools in Blantyre, Malawi. (Photos: Northeast Community College)

It’s not unusual to hear about community college leaders meeting with schools, higher education institutions and government officials from around the globe. But one’s curiosity increases when it is a rural Nebraska community college that visited a third-world country in east Africa.

In May, Michael Chipps, president of Northeast Community College in Nebraska, and two vice presidents, John Blaylock and Lyle Kathol, were part of a larger group from northeast Nebraska that included a city mayor and representatives from two churches. Even though each group had very different “missions” for convening in Malawi, they all had a common denominator called the “Norfolk Schools in Malawi,” located in Blantyre. During the visit, Chipps and the Northeast team met with several of the country’s senior officials, including ministers of education, agriculture and health, as well as local technical college and university leaders.

The groundwork for the visit was set last year, when Chipps was in Washington, D.C., and invited the Malawi ambassador to the U.S. to come to Nebraska. The ambassador accepted the invitation and spent time in spring 2017 at Northeast Community College, and then invited Chipps to visit Malawi.

Below, we ask Chipps a few questions about his trip to Malawi.

CCDaily: Part of the goal of your trip was to share ideas, especially around agriculture technologies, and explore potential partnerships. How did those discussions start?

Chipps:  Our visit to Malawi was especially meaningful as we made advanced preparations to gain special insight into Malawi’s educational and agricultural systems. The advance preparations and the ambassador’s positive sphere of influence made the visit an outstanding learning experience. The ambassador arranged for a meeting with the minister of agriculture, irrigation and water development to learn more about Malawi’s agriculture industry, including that 30 percent of Malawi’s GDP is agriculturally based. The Northeast team was also able to visit a sugar cane cooperative, which consisted of shareholders who joined together to form a 1,400-acre sugar cane farm with 10 center pivot irrigation systems.

As a matter of note, the 10 pivot systems were produced by a Nebraska irrigation manufacturer. It was a unique feeling, seeing the valley pivots in operation 10,000 miles from Nebraska. In addition, we understood that the pivot pumps draw water from the Shire River, which comes from Lake Malawi, one of the 10 largest freshwater inland lakes in the world.

In contrast, we also witnessed the challenges of operating modern irrigation technologies efficiently in Malawi, which has serious electrical power instability. The Northeast leadership team evaluated opportunities related to a joint cooperative relationship with the Malawi University of Agriculture and Natural Resources. This venture could include some of its agriculture instructors visiting Northeast Community College to learn common methods of American agriculture.

CCDaily: On your trip you encouraged Malawi students to pursue higher education, even giving Northeast a plug as a potential destination. In fact, four students from Norfolk Schools in Malawi started at your college last fall. What do you think is the appeal of the college to them, and how was their first year? (Editor’s note: Northeast has a Center for Global Engagement focused on serving international students as they transition from home to being a student at the college.)

Chipps: Northeast is globally engaged with students, faculty and staff. The Malawi students are no different with the exception that they have a primary contact here in Norfolk. These students continue to do well academically and socially. In fact, two of them have summer jobs working as certified nursing assistants at a care home which is related to their nursing program of study.

What is different about this part of our global engagement is the work of Dr. Joe Mtika and the Norfolk Schools in Malawi (NSM). NSM was founded by Dr. Mtika, a resident of Norfolk, Nebraska, which happens to be in the same community of the main campus of Northeast Community College. Working with Dr. Mtika’s schools in Malawi is a great opportunity to advance Northeast’s Center for Global Engagement and to better expose our students, employees and our 20-county service area to a world beyond northeast Nebraska.

Since most of our present students have not traveled to the ‘Malawis of the world,’ how do we bring places like Malawi to our students? These new Malawian students were immersed in our Northeast system this past year – by enrolling in classes, taking part in activities, living in our residence halls and being engaged at all levels of the college and community. This and other related exposure gives Northeast students a much broader understanding of and appreciation for a global workplace.

We want global to become part of the northeast Nebraska tapestry. We begin by exposure to the cultures of the world and then continue the learning by integrating global into the curriculum, seasoned with extracurricular activities involving students, employees and the community at large. Our regional college family needs to understand and embrace that there is something more than just the 20-county northeast Nebraska service area. Our board of governors is visionary, so they had guided the global conversations. They certainly have a heart for and have set a vision that includes educating a globally competitive workforce.

Chipps congratulates a graduate of Norfolk Schools in Malawi. He is joined by Kathol and John Blaylock, the college’s executive vice president.

CCDaily: What were some takeaways from the trip for you and your team? Any new ideas developed or ways to refine or revamp existing ideas or programs?

Chipps: We witnessed the extraordinary desire of the Malawi students to complete their education at Norfolk Schools in Malawi and all 12 graduates have applied to attend Northeast. Norfolk Schools in Malawi educates students using American curriculum, which makes for a smooth transition to American colleges and contributes to student success. We also learned that there are very limited opportunities for young people in Malawi to earn a college education. The extremely low number of students who attend college there is staggering as their universities and technical colleges have limited capacity to accept only a few of the students who are eligible to attend.

We spent concentrated time with instructors at the Norfolk Schools in Malawi to better ensure that the curriculum was such to make students successful at an American college. We then covered a general overview of student expectations with Northeast’s general education core courses. We also discussed the programs of study we have to offer and how graduation from these programs vary from one another. It was a rich and meaningful conversation with faculty about how to bring the American education system to Malawi.

In addition, the Northeast Community College Foundation has established a scholarship fund that the Malawian students may apply for so they have some means to be able to better finance a U.S.-based education. The college is planning on working with Dr. Mtika to identify additional financial resources to assist Malawi students.

What touches the deepest part of my heart is reviewing the students’ biographies. The students and their families have similar hopes and dreams, not much different than my family. They want an education to better themselves, their families and their country. They hope to become farmers, information technologists, medical specialists, human health professionals, optometrists, accountants, nurses and the list goes on. They are bright, enthusiastic, young people of strong faith, who believe that opportunity brings a bright future. And Northeast is committed to give them that opportunity, which begets hope and leads to a better life.

CCDaily: What insight or advice would you share with other community college leaders who are considering similar visits to other countries or creating partnerships?

Chipps: It is essential that if a college is considering global programming, it does so for the right reason. It is fundamental that such engagement aligns closely with the mission, vision, values and strategic goals of the institution. And second, that all participants engaged in the global sphere need to benefit.

At Northeast, everyone who has touched the global space has benefited, from communities, to colleges, to faculty, to staff and most importantly, to the students who have engaged globally. Every partner has had the opportunity to gain a much better understanding of and support for the amazing world around us.

Since global was first introduced at Northeast, the college has evolved to become a richer and deeper place through forging long-standing educational and cultural relationships with countries, colleges and students.  No longer are lines being drawn; they are disappearing as commonalities of people are formed.

For example, Northeast recently hosted 22 students from College360, a college in Denmark. It was rewarding to see how this new partnership impacted the lives of everyone who played any role with that visit. Students from both institutions now have more opportunities to engage in cultural and educational opportunities that were unimaginable prior to this encounter.

These exchange opportunities have given students and faculty experiences that affects them for a lifetime as to the way one thinks, feels and behaves with a greater understanding of a global society. In turn, we all enjoy the broader, holistic benefits of belonging to a forward thinking, 21st century community college.

As higher education leaders, we are responsible to chart new avenues of learning. In this case, new learning is about the global village and how people live, work and play in that space much differently than in previous centuries. As leaders, it is our duty and privilege to create places and spaces that encourage enlightenment, excitement, and exploration. Malawi was one place of many where Northeast Community College will continue that dialogue.

Visitors from Norfolk, Nebraska, were guests at a lunch hosted at the Gordon and Masida Soko family home in Blantyre, Malawi.

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