A New State of Mind: Journey Across Three Continents Shakes Up Students' Visions, Notions About the World

Issue Date: 
August 24, 2010
The PittMAP group, with Cape Town's District Six in background.The PittMAP group, with Cape Town's District Six in background.

The daily scenes in Cape Town, South Africa, were jarringly different from what Elly Schmitmeyer had envisioned. The city presented disparate sights: intensely dark blue skies, even bluer ocean water, rugged mountains, swatches of painful poverty in the townships. It spurred a range of emotions: from utter awe of the county’s diversity of language, race, and economic status to uncertainty about how this young White woman from Mars, Pa., would fit into the Rainbow Nation.

“You think of South Africa as part of the Third World. What I didn’t realize was that, yes, that is an aspect of South Africa, but it is only one of so many aspects,” said Schmitmeyer, a Pitt senior majoring in health and rehabilitative sciences and minoring in art.

“You have the huge tourist industry in Cape Town, the university, the beautiful outdoors, the wine country … You see that you once defined the country by one aspect, and then you begin to understand that that is completely unfair and inaccurate.”

From January to April, Schmitmeyer traveled thousands of miles to three continents, observing new countries and cultures up close, assessing her own country from afar. Her travel mates were 13 other Pitt students participating in the University’s inaugural Multi-region Academic Program (PittMAP). The semester-long, for-credit program took the students and Nancy Condee, faculty director for this year’s trip and a professor and film scholar in Pitt’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, to Buenos Aires, Argentina; Cape Town, South Africa; and Beijing, China. Also participating in the program were Barbara Kucinski, a lecturer in Pitt’s Department of Psychology; Whitney Grespin,

PittMAP onsite coordinator; and, present in each of the countries, a faculty member from each of the three cities’ partner universities.

The group spent five weeks in each city, taking courses at the universities as well as fulfilling requirements for a course outlined by Condee. The titled theme of study, “State Memory/Private Lives,” guided coursework on the three continents. “What is state memory? How does the state regulate what we remember, and how does that differ from what we think privately?” Condee said, explaining the course theme.

In each city, students explored how cultures create and sustain memory systems. They also looked at the tensions between state-created memory systems, such as museums or war memorials, and individual memory systems, such as holiday rituals and civic activism. By the end of the students’ trip, the world would seem so much more familiar because of all that they learned—yet so much bigger because they realized how much they did not know.

State-Sponsored Terrorism, Memory

Amid Buenos Aires’ beautiful architecture, stands with refreshing gelato, and modernized waterfront, the PittMAP students visited a number of sites related to Argentina’s period of state-sponsored terrorism, known as the Dirty War. The Memorial Park, Parque de la Memoria, for example, commemorates the victims of that 1976-1983 war in which 10,000 to 30,000 people disappeared. The park is Argentina’s first state-funded monument dedicated to the desaparecidos (or the “disappeared”). Students also toured a nearby military training school that was used as a torture facility for prisoners taken during the Dirty War. Equally gut-wrenching was seeing the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, elderly women who had lost their children during the war, engage in their weekly protest in Buenos Aires’ central square. Every Thursday evening, the women wearing headscarves gather and hold picket signs with photos of their desaparecidos children.

For Sam Kramer, a Chancellor’s Scholar and Pitt senior majoring in math and minoring in computer science and English literature, the program’s Argentinean component was fascinating. Buenos Aires is incredibly cosmopolitan, said Kramer, a Philadelphia native, and learning about the history of Argentina’s Dirty War “makes you realize that we take for granted what we have here” in America.

District Six

For Schmitmeyer, one of the most interesting examples of private vs. state memory systems was Cape Town’s District Six, a once lively and cosmopolitan community inhabited by Black and mixed-race South Africans. In 1966, the South African government declared the district for Whites only and forcibly removed the residents, bulldozing their homes.

As part of the PittMAP course in Cape Town, students looked “at how the government defines people (racially), how it writes laws, and how those things played out in people’s lives through apartheid,” Schmitmeyer said.

In 1994, a District Six Museum opened as a remembrance to the district’s culture prior to the forced removals. A huge street map of the district, with handwritten notes from former residents marking where their homes had been, covers the museum’s first floor. Original street signs and other artifacts, as well as explanations of the district’s history and residents’ recorded remembrances, serve as private reminders of apartheid’s policies.

“Just to witness people coming together to maintain their identity and home—and their memories of it—was so moving. The museum was definitely created to preserve what was destroyed and could have potentially been forgotten,” Schmitmeyer said.

Becoming Global Citizens

The PittMAP program is unique in its comparative approach.

“Unlike almost any other study-abroad program, PittMAP is designed to be explicitly comparative. It is the embodiment of the concepts that drive Pitt’s Global Studies Program: It examines specific critical global themes and how they differ across countries or world regions,” said Lawrence Feick, senior director of International Programs, director of Pitt’s University Center for International Studies, and interim director of the Global Studies Program.

Feick added that Global Studies was recently notified that it has received for the first time a competitive four-year federal grant of more than $1.4 million and has won designation as a National Resource Center. (See story in this issue.) “PittMAP, as a unique and Pitt-developed product, made us very much more effective in winning this difficult competition,” Feick said.

Feick also praised Condee, saying that Pitt was fortunate to have her “in place to launch the program and personally travel on the first trip. She brings intellectual rigor, energy and enthusiasm, and a can-do attitude to the program. The program couldn’t have been in better hands, and I look forward to the upcoming years as the program examines different themes in global studies.”

On this inaugural trip, the PittMAP entourage comprised students from a wide range of majors and travel experience. For some, the trip marked their first time in an airport, let alone stepping onto a plane. But for almost all, the journey was the first experience of prolonged, independent travel where they had to learn and function in three very different cultures.

“I was not a specialist in any of the three countries,” said Condee, who has lived and studied in both the former Soviet Union and East Germany. But her specialty on this trip, in part, was teaching the students “how to become proficient in Plan B.” Whether it was figuring out how to order from a foreign-language menu, to make a phone call, to do laundry, or to navigate the city, the students became versed in finding creative ways to make their daily lives work.

Kramer, for example, found an innovative way to give cab drivers the names of restaurants or sites, written in Chinese. He would find his desired location on the Internet and place a piece of paper on the laptop screen. He would then trace the Chinese characters onto the paper and give it to a cab driver.

“At first, Beijing seemed cold, grey, dirty, and I had no language,” Kramer said. “So my friends and I kind of quickly developed a strategy to deal with it all. It took me some time, but by the time I left Beijing, I liked it.”

Kramer had traveled on his own and with family to parts of Europe and Israel during high school and college. Part of his desire to do the PittMAP program was that it would take him to Cape Town—as well as to Beijing, where he thought a more structured visit would be helpful.

Condee said a number of students had similar transformations over various issues in the three cities they visited. “Over time, the students became a lot less high maintenance,” she recalled. “I would tell them, ‘You’re not a tourist, it’s not a luxury situation. You’re in a university setting, and you have to take a breath and figure out how to make sense of it.’ Eventually, the students accepted that they couldn’t be experts, they couldn’t speak Chinese, but they could navigate in a rudimentary way. They were functioning as global citizens. That’s a change that took place in all of us.”

The spring 2011 PittMAP program will again take students to Buenos Aires, Cape Town, and Beijing. Next year’s theme will focus on global health and the various factors required to create, develop, and maintain health and health care in the global context, and how that effort interfaces with local traditions and other sociocultural issues. The faculty director will be Pitt English professor David Bartholomae.