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Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Faculty member Scott Fee helping build new college in South Africa

Construction management faculty member Scott Fee is helping to build a new college, from the ground up, in Karatara, South Africa.

2007-01-23
By Robb Murray, Free Press Staff Writer [published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 1/23/2007]

Photo by John Cross
Scott Fee
Scott Fee, chair of MSU's construction management department, has been working with an old friend to develop curriculum for a new college in South Africa.

When you hear Scott Fee's story — about how he met a guy from South Africa 20 years ago on an Australian safari, how despite being from vastly different worlds the two of them clicked immediately and became friends, about how they kept in touch over all these years and now the South African has asked him to help develop curriculum for a new college that aims to bring sustainable wealth to impoverished villages — you might ask yourself, "Why?"

"My motivation is not altruistic," Fee said. "I'm not out to save the world."

He is out, however, to pursue a professional opportunity he knows will probably never come along again.

Fee, chairman of MSU's construction management department, is working with longtime South African friend Steve Carver to develop curriculum for a fledgling college there called Eden Campus. He, Carver and others are hammering out the basics of what the college's teachings will be.

For Fee, it is a challenge not unlike the one faced several years ago when he came to MSU.

"There's was a lot of untapped potential here," Fee said of the construction management program. "Lots of room for me to make a difference ... Now, I get to create something from the ground floor."

The story of Fee's involvement with Eden Campus begins two decades ago in Australia.

He and Carver met in the Outback while on an educational program sponsored by Rotary Exchange. They became friends right away. Even shared a tent together.

When it was over, they stayed in touch, sometimes letting months pass by without contact.

Then last year, while Fee was considering pursuing a Fulbright Fellowship, he and his old friend caught up with each other again.

Fee told Carver about his plans. And Carver told Fee to forget those plans and come work for him. Carver, who comes from a wealthy, activist family, was in the middle of a major endeavor: starting up a college in a part of the world in desperate need of help.

"He wanted to create a place where black students could learn to create sustainable wealth in their hometowns," Fee said.

Eden Campus is in the South African town of Karatara, a town populated almost exclusively by unemployed whites who live largely on government subsidies. It is surrounded by pockets of black South Africans, all of whom live in shanty towns in the highway medians. Hardly any have access to transportation. Almost all walk wherever they need to go.

The college is in a building that used to be a nursing home, and Carver convinced the city leadership to donate the land to him for use as a college.

Carver then put a call out to 40 communities around Karatara and told them to select one community leader among the city's college-aged population for enrollment at Eden Campus.

Forty students arrived. Their first task: Clean the building. They removed everything from broken glass to human feces to make the building sanitary enough for students and faculty to study and work.

Carver's original Eden Campus epiphany occurred in 2003. By 2005, he'd put the call out for community leaders. They showed in January 2006. Today it is a working campus using the curriculum of another institution until it develops its own and gets accredited.

Enter Fee, a man from a world where major academic change takes years to occur.

Fee met with Carver and other Eden Campus partners in Boston in September. The event, a fundraiser, was the first time Fee and Carver had seen each other in 20 years.

A few months later, Fee actually went to Karatara, an experience he, as a white male from the richest country in the world, found humbling. Seeing the poverty firsthand and navigating a different culture's mores and etiquette, he says, taught him a lot about who he was and what he was doing here.

Now's the hard part: figuring out their academic mission and what they want their curriculum to look like. Among the South Africans involved, including Carver, there's a push to make sure students leave Eden Campus with specific skills that can be used quickly to earn money.

Fee, on the other hand, would like to see more emphasis placed on teaching students how to become lifelong learners. The difference almost equates to the adage, "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime."

He'd like to see classes in writing and ethics and other things students in traditional universities and colleges study.

That clashing, he says, has brought some clarity.

"I've never been so aware of who I was in the moment," he said.

His role, he said, is becoming more clear.

"I have to be an education evangelist," he said.

There's no deadline as such, Fee says, on when they need to crank out a curriculum. That kind of demand is an American concept. Here, the rules are different — it will be done when it's done. Fee's learning as he goes along that, when it comes to higher education in South Africa, there are few parallels.

"It took me two years to change the name of a class at MSU," he said. "It took them less time to launch a school."

Eden Campus (www.edencampus.co.za) hopes to have 10 campuses by 2015.

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