By Kaitlin Hodge
Five hundred students surround you. Five hundred minds,
five hundred bodies. One thousand hands raising, five hundred hands scribbling away.
You are all here for the same reason, taking this class to fulfill the same requirement.
Five hundred students, more or less. One classroom.
This was the educational system as Florentine
Bambara, a graduate student from Burkina Faso, knew it before she was
accepted to Smith's American Studies Diploma Program (AMS) for the 2008-09 school
year. "The educational system here and in my country is like South and North;
it is completely different," Bambara explains and shares a laugh when she
admits, "The first time when I arrived at JFK, New York, I wanted to take
the first flight and go home, because the airport was very big...I'm just wondering
how to even be and everything is so new for me even to go and look for a book in
the library... Even the environment is different. When I came at JFK, we don't
have escalators. It was my first time...and I was very scared."
To Bambara, everything is new, and of particular interest
to her are the educational differences. For instance, she explains, "The educational
system is different because in my country essentially we have only one university...we
have some private university for those who want to study management, business, administration...but
for those who want to study humanities...we only have one big university."
Bambara remembers, "When I was a first year, [my
class had] five hundred students, only first-year students, those who were studying
English." At the university where she studied, all students studying the same
subject follow the same course curriculum -- all classes are related to their major
interest, and electives are not permitted. Class sizes therefore range anywhere from
five hundred students to over a thousand students, depending on the topic of study.
Because of this, she explains, "...the teacher couldn't give us assignments
like here. You know, the difference is that here we are reading a lot, we are writing
a lot, and we are typing a lot. In Burkina Faso, it is impossible. You cannot do
it; the teacher cannot grade all these persons' [work]."
Understandably, Smith requires a great deal of adaptation
from Bambara. She confesses, "When I came here it was difficult for me. I have
to read many books for only one course...it's not easy. In Burkina, it's different...It's
even difficult for you to get the books...This is the problem with our educational
system. And for the writing, I'm lucky that they told us [we could use] the Jacobson
Center to help us with writing." When I asked if she utilizes the Jacobson Center
often, she laughs to admit, "I really don't have time."
In her time in the United States, Bambara has also
paid attention to the political system here, as well as how the people here react
to it. She recollects surprising encounter during her junior year while she was writing
a short paper on President Bush and the United States' environmental policies. "I
wrote to a cousin who's studying here in New York to ask her about her views concerning
Bush's policies, and she was not informed like that," she says. "She told
me that here some students are not really informed concerned politics. But it's totally
different in Burkina Faso. In Burkina, you have to be informed about how the presidents
are deciding concerning the change of the country, the future of the economy, the
policies...Politics is very important for us." Concerning the actual political
system, however, Bambara explains that she is impressed by the American system. "All
you are four years, two terms. In Burkina it's completely different. Let's take the
example of our president. He's [been] in power [since] twenty years ago." She
smiles when she says, "So the United States presidential election system, I
As part of the AMS Diploma program, diploma students
are required to complete a thesis by the end of their year of study. Bambara is not
yet sure what her thesis topic will be, although she is considering such subjects
as perceived violence against women in Africa and female genital circumcision, more
often referred to here as female genital mutilation. As to what Bambara plans to
do with her AMS Diploma, she says, "I'm planning to teach -- to teach American
studies, American literature. I'm much more interested in American Literature. In
my country...we don't have many teachers. So I think I can go back and teach American
literature. We need teachers to teach this course, even American history, American
civilization." She explains, "To teach at the university level, I need
a PHD, and this diploma will allow me to do further studies. I'm much more interested
in higher level university."
And even though Bambara admits that it is difficult,
at times, adjusting to her new environment here at Smith, she does not hesitate before
urging other students to take similar risks. She says, "in this world, you have
to be broad-minded. And this was the first aspect that led me to choose to study
American studies." The decision to study in the United States, for her, was
clear "because the United States is about the, if I would say, the leader in
this world. It's important to study an aspect of its culture, its literature, so
that you can judge it instead of being narrow-minded and just [sitting] in your house
and saying the United States is like ‘that.' You have to come and study and
to know what's happening here, why it is like this." To Smith students,
she offers, "...[similarly], I think that everybody in this world [should] have
to study some aspect of another culture instead of focusing on his own culture. If
we all have a broad sense of how the world is functioning, I think that will be very
Manuela Esmerode, a graduate student
from Geneva, Switzerland, comes to Smith this year as part of the American Studies
Diploma Program. "I finished [my] bachelor in Geneva, so I wanted to go abroad
for a year, and I really wanted to go to the States...so I applied for the scholarship
at Smith," she explains. "In Geneva, I'm studying French and history. So
it has nothing at all [to do with] America, but here I am studying mostly American
literature... American literature is something that I've not done before, and when
I will be back in Geneva I will continue studying French literature. So it's kind
of a year abroad, a special year."
One of the most striking environmental differences
between Geneva and Smith, Esmerode notes, is the campus. She describes, "I've
never been on a campus before, so I've always been living on my own, and so it's
pretty strange for me to be in a place where the food is made for you and stuff like
that... In Geneva, the university is not on campus -- there is no campus. There are
many buildings in the city separate one from another, so you do not have a campus." When
asked about the impacts of not having a campus, she responds, "I think that
it offers you more opportunity to meet different groups of people out of the academic
world. And I think that's important, because of course I like to meet students but
that's not all the world. There is a huge part which is not in the academic world,
and I think it's not the aim of the university to stay closed and out of the rest
of the world." In effort to continually expand her surroundings, Esmerode is
currently taking a "class about Indian literature at Amherst [College]" in
addition to participating in rock climbing and yoga, singing in the choir, and taking
As to her classes at Smith, Esmerode says, "The
way courses are conducted [at Smith] is different. There are much more readings to
do here than in Geneva. And I can speak only for literature because that is what
I'm studying, but the discussions are also really different and the way to analyze
text, for example, is completely different also. So that's good for me, because I
learn a different method." And as she prepares to write her thesis paper, the
culminating project of the AMS Diploma Program, she says, "I want to do it in
American literature, and when I was in Geneva the only thing that I read in American
literature was popular white writer like Jim Harrison and a writer from the South/South-West....What
I like in them is the way they write about nature, how they depicted nature, and
often they choose to do that through the eyes of Indian characters. So the viewpoint
on nature is different and I would like to study something related to [the way different
people view nature]."
Concerning her grand future, however, only time will
tell. "Well, [teaching] is a possibility. I've been a substitute in Geneva,
but mostly for non-French speaking students in small classes for immigrant students
who [had] just arrived in Switzerland...So that's not really French literature, that's
learning French language. But to teach? I don't know if that's what I want to do...
I don't feel like now I know enough things to be able to teach."
Speaking to Smith students who are considering studying
abroad, she says, "I would definitely encourage Smith students to go abroad
for one year... It's really healthy because you learn to do it all from the start.
You learn to meet new people, to live in a new environment. It's like traveling for
a long time. You have to build up everything from the beginning and...you can see
things from a farther viewpoint, have a broader view of things."