Ben Byerly and Robert Arnold met while attending a boarding school in Africa; both were the children of missionaries. When they reconnected through a mutual friend more than a decade later via Facebook, they hatched an idea that has blossomed into a multi-faceted educational opportunity for students in the United States and Kenya.
Byerly and Arnold, who is an instructor in the UNC Charlotte English Department and University Honors Program (UHP), have collaborated to extend UNC Charlotte’s global reach by helping to create a writing resource center at the Africa International University (AIU), in Nairobi, Kenya.
Last year, Arnold led a group of 15 UHP students in an effort to gather resources for the writing center. He used the experience in the Community Service Practicum Honor’s course as a case study on how modern forms of written and/or visual communication can connect small communities geographically isolated from each other.
According to UHP director Connie Rothwell, there are several key elements necessary to start a writing center — chief among them are books, computers and funding.
Over the course of the Fall 2010 semester, the students held several fund-raisers, including a fashion show deemed “Fashion for Peace,” to purchase computers and cover the cost of shipping donated books overseas.
Rothwell said the students also collected more than 300 books, many from UNC Charlotte’s English department faculty.
Little Effort, Big Impact
On a recent trip to the United States, Byerly explained the origins of the project and talked about where things currently stand.
As a doctoral student attending the AIU Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Byerly first recognized the need for a writing center as his colleagues approached him for technical, writing and editing support.
– Ben Byerly, AIU Writing Center
“I saw how just a little bit of effort on my part could make a very dramatic change,” he said. “With just an hour or two here or there, you can help someone expand their horizons.”
He has helped colleagues and students improve their theses and dissertations, and has worked with them to launch blogs so that their voices can be heard on national and international issues.
Byerly noted that for many AIU students, English might be a fifth language.
“You’ve got really brilliant people at the PhD level, but imagine the level of processing they have to go through to write their dissertations in English,” Byerly said. “The writing center will benefit them.”
Africa is a continent with very high linguistic diversity. Many African nations claim multiple national languages. English is a national language in a number of countries, including Kenya.
“All of the newspapers are printed in English, television news is in English,” Byerly said. “Once you get to the high school and university level, everyone has to have a solid foundation in English.”
But that foundation may or may not include strong writing skills, he explained.
“Education in many African countries is still a system where students regurgitate what their professors or mentors tell them,” Byerly said.
Still, many students from the AIU traverse gaps in their educational experiences to become prominent community and government leaders, start schools and focus on ways to combat major issues including poverty and AIDS.
Byerly has since returned to Kenya; in fact, he toted in his luggage two computers and a printer bound for the writing center. More than half of the books collected are in transit shipping, on their way to Kenya; the remaining materials are being prepared for shipment by UHP students.
“Once we get all the stuff there, the AIU library staff and student council have created a space for the writing center,” he said. “Then we’ll start recruiting tutors.”
Starting out, Byerly will staff the center a few afternoons per week. He is hoping that in the future a UNC Charlotte graduate interested in spending a year abroad will come to Kenya to set up writing seminars for AIU students.
Thinking back to the genesis of the project, Byerly couldn’t help but smile. “Without what happened at UNC Charlotte, and without Robert’s expertise, it would be me sitting at a desk with a handful of books I’ve collected,” he said. “Now we have a real writing center where we can give them the tools to find their own voice.”
Click here to watch a video clip about the Writing Center at AIU.