Carl Larsen ’14 was running on the treadmill at his gym when the breaking news flashed across the TV: Nelson Mandela had died.
“I don’t think there’s been a major news event other than 9/11 that I felt as intimately connected to as I did when I heard Mandela had died,” he says.
Six months earlier, the economics major had been in South Africa the week the world leader was first hospitalized. He visited Mandela’s home and prison cell, and even spent an hour with F. W. de Klerk, the last white president of South Africa, who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, the nation’s first black president, for working to end the apartheid system of racial segregation (group pictured above).
Carl was one of 10 students who participated in last year’s Iron Sharpens Iron (ISI) program, sponsored by the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy. The program, conceived and designed by Dr. Dorothy Chappell, dean of natural and social sciences, has taken students to meet political and business leaders in Europe in 2010, Latin America in 2011, China in 2012, and Africa in 2013.
“The scope of enterprise was nearly unimaginable, as was the students’ contact with strategic leaders and historic figures,” says Dr. Seth Norton, director of the Hastert Center and professor of political economy. “This was truly the opportunity of a lifetime for all students and faculty involved.”
Initially funded by a foundation, the ISI program will require new funding in order to send the next group of students abroad in 2015.
Last summer’s trip began with three weeks of on-campus coursework. The 10 students and five faculty members then spent the month of June traveling South Africa, Malawi, and Ghana in order to observe the interaction of business, economics, and politics in sub-Saharan Africa and how these forces impact human well-being.
The group’s 14 business visits ranged from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and multinational corporations such as Pick n Pay and Damco/Maersk to sellers of dried fish and cooking oil in rural Ghana and Malawi, funded by microfinance loans from Opportunity International. Eight political visits included South Africa’s parliament and the Apartheid Museum, as well as a meeting with Susan Banda, daughter of Malawi president Joyce Banda, to discuss her nation’s infrastructure efforts.
The highlight of the trip was a small- group discussion in Cape Town with de Klerk about South Africa’s movement from apartheid to democracy and the former president’s personal thoughts on what Dr. Norton calls “an absolute marquee moment in world history.”
“He was very generous to spend a considerable amount of time talking privately to us about South African politics, the effects of international policy, and the role of faith in his work,” says Julia Wittrock ’15, a business/economics major. “It was fascinating to hear his personal insights about working with other world leaders. He mentioned that the leaders who influenced him most were those like Margaret Thatcher, who chose a path of constructive engagement rather than sanctions.”
Such “firsthand information about political leadership,” as Julia describes it, highlights what experiential learning programs like ISI can offer Wheaton students.
“The students can read the books and study the charts, but without field exposure, I don’t think they could fully appreciate the impact of the colonial era and the slave trade,” says Dr. Norton.
“It’s one thing to read that South Africa is the second-most unequal country in the world,” says Carl. “But then to go and see the slums, poverty, and other legacies of apartheid ourselves made the in-class lessons so much more powerful and tangible. In the social sciences, this is the closest thing we have to a laboratory. It’s a chance to test theories in real life.”
Travis Tos ’15, an economics major, offers microfinance as an example. Though he understands that the system is not without problems, he says, “Being able to go talk to people whose lives were being changed by microlending— women finally making an income for themselves to spend on nutrition and education for their children—was really inspirational.”
Such experiential learning also influences both teaching and scholarship for participating professors. Dr. Annette Tomal, associate professor of business and economics, went on all four trips and often uses her experiences to illustrate classroom concepts. In Africa, rural microfinance visits followed by discussions about infrastructure with urban government officials helped highlight the economic complexities. “I saw firsthand how there is no one solution to poverty and economic development,” she says.
She and Dr. Norton have also since co- written several research papers exploring factors that affect female education levels and the education gender gap on an international level, drawing on the stories and experiences of women in the different countries they visited.
Like the trip to Africa, previous trips incorporated political and cultural high points as well as a host of business and factory tours. While in Europe, students met with President Gjorge Ivanov in his Macedonian home, and the China trip included a visit to the Korean DMZ (demilitarized zone). In Peru, students experienced the entire textile manufacturing process from cotton bales all the way to the clothes produced for popular brands. Many of these previous students report that ISI experiences helped them do everything from narrowing their fields of interest and securing job interviews and offers, to successfully launching careers.
At the close of each trip, students were required to write a research paper and present their research to Wheaton faculty and administrators, as well as former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Dennis Hastert.
Carl says of the entire ISI experience, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip that captures so many critical qualities of the Wheaton experience: integration of faith and learning, exposure to faculty, interdisciplinary studies, and interaction with different cultures.”