On December 7 and 8, 2015, the first nine graduate students in the Lakeland College Masters of Education program defended their thesis projects to members of the college faculty. Then, on December 9, they donned their caps and gowns and marched down the aisle in the presence of families and friends at Ufulu Gardens in the capital city of Lilongwe to receive their diplomas. What follows are some impressions of what transpired.
Professor Jeff Elzinga reports that the thesis defenses went well. There were five defenses on the first day and four on the second. While some of the students live in or near Lilongwe, several had to make long journeys by bus to get to the capital city. Dr. Mehraban Khodavandi, Chair of Lakeland’s Graduate Education Program, participated in the defense meetings from his campus office via Skype technology. For him in Wisconsin, it was the middle of the night, with the first defense beginning at 1:00 in the morning, Wisconsin time. According to Professor Elzinga, Dr. Khodavandi's electronic presence added something especially meaningful to the entire process, connecting the group back to Lakeland College in a direct and palpable way. Everyone was thrilled to see their teacher and advisor again, even if only via computer screen. As Elymas Tembwe said, "I was very happy to see my research lecturer face-to-face on Skype since we had parted in June."
Ndamyo Mwanyongo said that she felt nervous before her defense, which seemed appropriate to her, given that she knew she would be facing a discerning panel. "But," she wrote, "when I was welcomed by Professor Jeff Elzinga, and seeing Dr Khodavandi on Skype, the nervousness was driven away. I felt very confident after explaining my topic and how the research went on. The experience was somehow what I anticipated." Phillip Nachonie also reported feeling nervous beforehand. "But came the day," he said, "it was not as hard as I thought. I was very confident because it was about something I had been doing myself. Responding to questions was not a problem anymore."
About 65 people attended the December 9 graduation ceremony. There were representatives from USAID, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, principals from the Teacher Training Colleges, and many other friends and family members of the graduates, including Dr. Brian Frink, Professor of Chemistry and Chair of Lakeland’s Interdisciplinary Studies Division. According to Professor Elzinga, the event was every bit as lovely as one would wish it to be. "The venue was beautiful," he said. "Brian and I wore our graduation gowns, as did the students. Brian read the names of the graduates and I handed out the diplomas. We even piped in the same music we use on campus, along with the Malawian and US national anthems."
Ndamyo took special notice of the music. "When the music started for us to begin marching in, it felt like we were at Lakeland. I said to myself, 'This graduation was well planned for, and we've been honored.' Having my family there, including my husband and kids, made me feel fully supported." Phillip agreed that the presence of his wife, relatives, and government officials made the experience a truly great celebration, "one of my most memorable days," he said.
The journey that began for this group of nine in June 2014 has ended. They have successfully attained their Masters degrees after 18 months of intense work. But, if one were to ask any of them, the real journey—to enrich and expand early grade reading instruction in Malawi—has only just begun.
The graduates stand on the steps at Ufulu Gardens accompanied by (back row, left to right),
Lakeland Professor Brian Frink, Mr. Douglass Arbuckle, Mission Director at USAID/Malawi,
and Lakeland Professor Jeff Elzinga. In the front row is Ms. Chrissie Chisamba, Lakeland graduate
of 2008, who served as the students' research mentor in Malawi from June to December 2015.
This post is written by Lisa Vihos on behalf of Lakeland College. The program is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this blog are the responsibility of Lakeland College and do not necessarily reflect the views of the USAID or the United States Government.