One topic I have studiously avoided is my experience in overseas classrooms. This was a conscious decision as nothing could more quickly dampen enthusiasm for this blog than a few indecipherable pages of computer science minutia–even my wife starts to snooze when I begins waxing rhapsodic about a new assignment in my Data Structures course. However, there is one misconception I need to raise and quickly put to rest—the quality of students you will encounter in a developing economy such as Zimbabwe (at least when we were there) or an even poorer third-world nation like Kenya.
One would naturally expect outstanding students at a top-tier university in countries like England, Australia, Israel, and Japan. Turkey, a NATO ally, could also rightfully be assumed to have high quality university programs filled with excellent students. However, many North American and European faculty would shy away from working vacation opportunities in places like Kenya or Zimbabwe assuming, incorrectly, that students will be unprepared, facilities will be prehistoric, and the level of instruction will barely rise above that of grade school. Let me assure you that this assumption is utterly wrong!
While some of the more costly resources—e.g., scientific equipment, journal collections—are often not at the level of a comparable facility in Europe or the United States, the students in both Kenya and Zimbabwe were uniformly excellent, not just smart but some of the most enthusiastic and hardest working I have had in three decades of teaching, and there is a simple explanation.
Kenya has a population of roughly forty million, with a larger percentage of its citizens of college age (18–25) than the United States. However, the country has only nineteen institutions of higher education, amounting to about one for every two million residents–the equivalent of my home state of Minnesota having only three colleges and universities. In fact, it has 32! This relative dearth of tertiary institutions makes admission extremely competitive, so top schools like the University of Nairobi attract the best and brightest students in the country, or at least the best and brightest who do not attend college overseas. The majority of students in my classes at the University of Nairobi and UZ would succeed and, in many cases, flourish, at a good U.S. school.
Furthermore, because they know they are among the lucky few to be granted admission, they are eager to make the most of their good fortune by “pumping” teachers for any and all knowledge they can. This was a pleasant change from jaded students back home who treat classes not as unique learning experiences but as hurdles to get over on their way to a high paying job on Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Some of my most enjoyable times were spent in the school cafeteria or neighborhood coffee house chatting with students who wanted to continue a discussion even though class had long since ended.
I can only assume this scenario would replicate itself in other disciplines as well. For example, because of a lack of scientific research centers in most developing nations the research centers that do exist will probably employ the very best scientists the country has to offer; similarly, with so few outlets available for displaying one’s artistic talent, the musicians, painters, and dancers you work with will likely be highly talented individuals. And, not only will they be bright and talented, they will be eager to join you in the process of studying, learning, and growing. I found these types of interactions to be professionally exhilarating and rewarding.
So if you are resisting applying for a working vacation in a lesser developed nation because of fears that you will end up in some primitive, backwater institution without qualified students, capable colleagues, or modern facilities, let me put your mind at ease. While, in most cases, you will not mistake a school, research lab, or cultural center in a developing nation for Oxford, Los Alamos, or the Met, they should provide a reasonably good level of professional interaction, not to mention a unique and thoroughly enjoyable social and cultural experience.