Lessons from South Africa

Trevor Noah (left) shares a laugh with AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus during the opening session of the 2023 AACC Annual. (Photo: Adam Auel)

DENVER — Trevor Noah often felt like he just didn’t belong. But he used that to his advantage.

The popular comedian, former host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and best-selling author related during the opening session of the 2023 AACC Annual Convention how growing up in a biracial family in South Africa during Apartheid shaped who he is and how he approaches his life’s work.

His book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood details his early years and how his mother was a driving force, especially when it came to church and education. In a Q&A with AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus, Noah said he was very aware that he was different, most noticeable through his skin color, which was different from everyone he was living with. He began to notice his accent was different and the languages his family spoke were different.

Noah explained that “belonging” provides safety and sense of purpose. He wanted that. But he grew up in a country where people were told “you are exactly how you look.” The government was intentional in making people aware of their skill color as a tool to divide them, and even further divided into subcategories based on skin color and culture, he said.

“It made people very aware of what divided them. It was very intentional from the Apartheid government side,” Noah said. “What it didn’t do was to focus on what brought us together.”

So he pursued to find those similarities in school and the community.

“That’s probably the biggest thing that shaped how I grew up as a young child in South Africa,” he said.

Noah noted that constantly forced him to learn — learn other languages, cultures and much more. He joked that you could not have a wider gulf in cultures than the one between Swiss people (his dad is Swiss) and Africans. The Swiss are about precision and timeliness with minimum emotion involved. Africans, he said, are the opposite — fully emotionally, expressing themselves and experiencing the joy in everything they do.

“I knew when my mother was in the house because she would be singing or saying something loudly. My father was like a ninja. I could lose him sitting next to me on the couch,” he said.

Noah said he’s retained that curiosity and empathy to engage with other people.

Seek challenges

When asked if he still sometimes questions if he can achieve a goal, Noah said it’s a feeling he has all the time.

“I think there are very few tasks that I take on where I don’t have a good measure of doubt before taking them on. In fact, sometimes it’s why I choose to take the task on,” he said, noting that unpredictability is one of the things he likes about stand-up comedy. It often makes you realize that things aren’t as bad as you imagine they are.

“You’re doubt often doesn’t match up with your ability,” he said.

Church and education

Church was a cornerstone for Noah and his family, which moved a lot in South Africa because of where they could live based on the color of their skin. But church was always the same.

“It was one of the few places where we could constantly find a community that was familiar. It became our home away from home,” he said.

What it instilled in him was the ability to think critically and to enjoy learning.

“Beyond the religion of it all, it was still stories, thinking, lessons, parables, ideas about the world we live in,” he said.

Education was critical for his family, Noah said. He noted that his mother was taught by missionaries who skirted rules about what subjects Blacks were taught in South Africa. His mother carried that joy of learning, he said, noting she would often buy used books for him to read.

“I never saw it as a punishment, I never saw it as a chore. She always made it feel like she was opening a door to an infinite world of possibility. And that’s what I felt learning was,” he said.

That served as an inspiration for Noah to create the Trevor Noah Foundation to provide equitable access to education in South Africa. The foudantion helps to provide the physical needs of education, like classrooms and learning tools, as well as services related to the psychology of a child’s learning, such as improving learning outcomes through counseling. The program is still in its infancy, but Noah is hopeful it will have an impact.

“We can’t do everything, but we can do something. So something is what we’ll do,” he said.

Hall of Fame induction

Saturday’s open session began with the recognition of the 11 recipients of the 2023 AACC Leadership Awards, which are given to individuals whose accomplishments and professional contributions to the community college field have been outstanding. The honorees include:

Each of the leaders thanked their colleges, colleagues, faculty and staff, and myriad supporters who helped them in their careers and life’s passion. Although they are retired, many of them continue to serve in education, from serving as private consultants, coaching other college leaders through Achieving the Dream or working on other education endeavors.

New and former AACC Leadership Award winners are inducted into the AACC Hall of Fame. (Photo: Adam Auel)

Later in the evening, AACC held an induction ceremony to its Hall of Fame (which includes all Leadership Award recipients), which was created in 2022. Many of the new Leadership Award winners and previous recipients were at the event. AACC presented its first Leadership Award in 1982.

Also on Saturday, AACC presented its 2023 Harry S. Truman Award to V. Celeste Carter, program director in the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation (NSF). She oversees NSF’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program. AACC is an ATE grantee and manages several NSF-funded programs, such as the ATE Conference, MentorLinks, the Community College Innovation Challenge and other activities.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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