Campus Life

A Portrait of Caring

Libre Gutierrez and natives stands in front of Mural depicting native people, plants and wildlifeMexican muralist Libre Gutierrez volunteered to join the SF State contingent in Vrygrond, South Africa, this year to lead the painting of a mural that depicts native people, plants and wildlife.

Vrygrond Township in Cape Town, South Africa, isn’t exactly a tourist trap. The economically challenged community lacks basic services such as fresh water and sewage treatment and has been plagued by gang violence. Yet each summer you’ll find students from SF State there. They aren’t searching for typical school break fun in the sun. They’re looking for opportunities to learn and help. And they’ve found them.

“For many of our students, this is the first time they’ve been out of the state or on an airplane.”

—Lygia Stebbing, EDvance Director

Every June for the past five years, a dozen students and staff from San Francisco State’s Department of Child & Adolescent Development (CAD), Early Childhood Special Education and EDvance programs have boarded a plane, some for the first time, and flown to South Africa as part of CAD’s honors program. Led by Lygia Stebbing, director of EDvance (an early childhood teacher preparation program in SF State’s Marian Wright Edelman Institute), the group spends eight weeks partnering with early childhood educators in Vrygrond. They learn Afrocentric curriculum practices and share methods for reinforcing good behavior with local teachers.

And they don’t just stick to the classroom. This year, one of the bright spots of the program — literally — was a colorful mural that the students, teachers and community members completed in honor of Mandela Day, an international celebration of Nelson Mandela. Mexican muralist Libre Gutierrez volunteered to join the SF State contingent this year to lead the painting of the mural, which depicts native people, plants and wildlife. The SF State students sacrificed weekend trips to help finish it, sometimes working sunup to sundown. When it was done, the mural became a beloved place of healing and unity, Stebbing said.

The trip follows a semester in which the SF State students learn about African history, political systems and economy as well as the race and class divisions in Cape Town.

“For many of our students, this is the first time they’ve been out of the state or on an airplane,” Stebbing says. “It’s a big eye opener.”

The students bring home songs they’ve learned in various African languages as well as dances and stories, which they share with the preschool children they work with here in San Francisco. But the partnerships the students form with teachers and community members last far beyond the eight-week trip.

“Working with the children of Vrygrond was a highlight of my trip in South Africa, but building relationships with the teachers and friendships with people my age in the township gave me the most perspective,” says Sylvia Gin, who graduated in May from the Metro CAD program with a bachelor’s degree in Health Education.

Brijhe Pointer, a student in the master’s program for early childhood education, said she could not have imagined that doing something as seemingly simple as painting a mural could affect a community in such a positive way. “It was a way of bonding with the community,” she says. “I have never felt such an abundance of love and gratitude like the community of Vrygrond radiated out.” 

Math + Good Posture = Better Scores

Illustration of guy typing on laptop with slouched back

If you’ve ever felt your stomach do flip-flops before taking a math test or speaking to a large group of people, you could benefit from advice your mother probably gave you: Sit up straight!

As part of a new study by SF State researchers, 125 college students were tested to see how well they performed simple math while either slumped over or sitting up straight with shoulders back and relaxed. Fifty-six percent of the students reported finding it easier to perform the math in the upright position.

“For people who are anxious about math, posture makes a giant difference,” says Professor of Health Education Erik Peper. “The slumped-over position shuts them down and their brains do not work as well.”

According to co-author Associate Professor of Health Education Richard Harvey, slumping over is a defensive posture that can trigger old negative memories in the body and brain. Harvey and Peper believe that an empowered body position can help people prepare not just for math and tests but almost any kind of performance under stress.

“You have a choice,” Peper says. “It’s about using an empowered position to optimize your focus.”

Furry Friends

Gesean Lewis Woods holding a white dog

When Gesean Lewis Woods was a child growing up in Los Angeles, the closest he got to having a pet was hiding a stray dog in his backyard and catching tadpoles in the Los Angeles River. His family didn’t appreciate his rescue efforts, however, and Woods was busted when the tadpoles transformed into a croaking backyard chorus. But today he’s turning his love of animals into a possible career, examining how friendships with animals might help people on the autism spectrum develop better relationships with humans.

A master’s student in the Graduate College of Education’s Special Education program, Woods is one of 74 recipients of this year’s California State University Foundation predoctoral scholarship, which supports the doctoral ambitions of students at CSU campuses. Last year Woods — who identifies as being on the spectrum — conducted a pilot study exploring that animal/human bond by asking individuals from an autism spectrum support group whether their pet has had an impact on their relationships with humans. Many of the interviewees felt, like Woods, that animals were easier to be around than people.

“One of the things about a friendship with animals is that they can’t really ‘owe’ you. There’s just this natural response between you,” Woods says. “You show your love to them and they show their love to you.”

Professor of Special Education Pamela Wolfberg, Woods’ advisor, says his unique views about life and animals has changed her. “Gesean is brilliant,” she says. “He looks at the world through a very unique lens. He is interested in more than pets for therapeutic reasons but in looking at the essence of friendship with an animal.” 

A Class of Her Own

Mary Ann Van Dam congratulates nursing graduate in Kenya

Mary Ann van Dam, professor and director of the School of Nursing, had a special reason to travel to Ukwala, Kenya, this summer to congratulate the first graduates of a four-year-old nursing school there: The new nurses were graduating from the Mary Ann van Dam School of Nursing. (van Dam helped launch the school with the Kenya-based Matibabu Foundation.) “Despite the heat, the experience was joyful, wonderful and unforgettable,” van Dam says, “full of dancing, awards and plays.”