Our students at UB
We like our students at UB. They are in many ways similar to students every where. Some are diligent but some are lazy. Some are smart and know how to take the easy way, some work very hard but struggle to stay afloat. But Cameroon students have their unique characteristics as a whole that we have not seen among American or Chinese students. They are very polite and friendly, not necessarily because they know you as their teachers or as the result of respecting your knowledge in your field like Chinese students. It is part of their nature as a person growing up here. They respect power or position, maybe too much. They follow rules, regardless of whether the rules are reasonable or not. Tom's theory is that, since their opportunities are limited, they can not afford to take a risk - they may never get another chance. While some are excellent students, they do not give you the impression that they have that bright, wild, ingenious creativity which we teachers love to discover! They look hard for correct "answers" in the academic settings, but are very flexible and forgiving on matters related to other persons. For example, they do not seem to mind that classes, meetings, concerts do not start on time, when it's clear to us that everyone's time is wasted. (Janice wants to report that she does have two linear algebra students who ARE very creative! Both are Francophones and both have responded with correct solutions to challenge problems she has posed! One spends class time trying to find different proofs for the theorems being proved in class - which he brings her at the end of class for approval. That one Janice is trying to recruit for ETSU's graduate program!)
Tom has always believed that all people are fundamentally the same, but they may behave differently because of their circumstances. Let us tell you a bit more about the background and environment here for our students, so you maybe able to see why we have not yet been able to pin down if there are some fundamental differences among people in Cameroon, Africa, and if so, what those differences are. Our students all have 7 years of primary school, but they will go to secondary school for 5 years before they go to high school for 2 more years. The University has a 3 year curriculum for all disciplines except medicine. Most of the courses at UB are 3 credits, which require students to go to 3 clock hours of lecture and two hours of tutorial. Only chemistry majors take practicals ( do experiments in labs) in chemistry. Other students take the lecture part only. (Similarly, biology and other science majors take practicals in their disciplines but other students taking their courses do not take the laboratory part of the courses.) Because of lack of space, all practicals are done in one lab space for each department. Teachers must hunt for tutorial spaces on a non-assigned basis. Both Janice and Tom use an outside common area for answering questions and doing homework problems as our tutorials. Students are not shy during these times when they are asked to put on the board what they have come up with on questions or answers. They volunteer even when they have an incorrect answer!
It is clear that college graduates are not properly used, there is just not enough infrastructure to support educated people. Many will go to teach in secondary or high schools, a few will work in limited industrial or government positions for which contacts, "knowing the right person", are extremely important. Then a very few will go to graduate schools in other countries in the West or in Africa - the United States, Britain, France and Nigeria are common destinations. We found that students here are better than American students in knowing what's happening in the rest of the world, but not as well read as most of the Chinese students. As in the US, the math is tough for many students, including science students. However, their general knowledge in math is better than that of their US counterparts. They all take a lot of courses, averaging 6 courses a semester. They have a much broader knowledge in chemistry than US students. For example, they usually know some solid state chemistry, biochemistry, soil chemistry, group theory and quantum chemistry as they have a semester of each respectively. There are almost no general education courses required at the University since they have completed those requirements while they have two extra years in high school.
All students dress very nicely. Although they cannot afford books, they have good clothes. We feel that this may be a result of misplaced priorities. Teachers are required to provide comprehensive notes and assignment problems to be copied - which makes class preparation time consuming. Teachers also have many large sections and very little help with grading! (Janice is currently helping to grade 600+ test papers from a 200 level math class for social science majors - needless to say it takes several people many hours!) Grades for each semester are not published until near the end of the following semester - because it takes that long to get everything done by hand. As a result, graduation for students who finish going to school in June takes place the next December! That means going to graduate school must be delayed by a year - yet students are very accepting of these problems.
Students are very religious - prayers are routinely said before meetings, etc. They dress modestly (girls never wear pants or low cut dresses). However, AIDS is a very serious problem here! We have found many children here with no father present, which does not seem to raise any eyebrows! It is an accepted phenomena. Yet, it is expected that people go to church. So we find many contradictions - things that don't seem to fit!
On a lighter note, we should report about our supply problems! Each faculty must have his/her own duster (eraser) which must be carried at all times. When we first arrived it was very difficult to find a duster since the new supplies had not arrived. We were actually arguing over who got to use the duster each day! Faculty are very protective of those dusters! Finally we received our supplies! We were issued one duster each, together with a supply of chalk, and were told that it must serve for the year! Most interestingly, we were issued with a supply of toilet paper! (Janice wondered why Tom was given 4 rolls while she received only 2!)
Finally, let us tell you about lunch at the Staff Canteen every working day. They have very little choice, especially for Janice. We have a menu of five to seven plates daily, all of them are too "hot" for Janice. So every week, Janice would have chicken 4 times out of five as she can request that regular sauces not be added to her plate. Tom has more to choose from, but he usually now has fish 3 times out of five. You can see what the plates are like from the accompanying pictures on this website.