By Sarah Carlson, Copy Editor
Dr. John Tyson walked into the presidential palace in Antananarivo, Madagascar, one Saturday morning in November 2003 not knowing what to expect.
While visiting the country on the first U.S.-Madagascar Business Council and trade mission, Tyson, vice president for development, represented World Christian Broadcasting, of which he is a board member, as well as higher education. He met with officials and delivered a message from ACU for the country.
“My message was that if the Republic of Madagascar was truly interested in developing the country and making its way out of poverty,” Tyson said, “then it would be important to invest in its most precious resource, which is the human resource.”
Tyson couldn’t help but notice the poverty of the country and the poor condition of the city. He also noticed its beauty.
French colonial style houses, tall with narrow roofs, line the crowded streets of the capital and reflect the influence France once had on the country. Smaller, red clay houses can be seen in fields along the roads and in the countryside.
Dressed casually for traveling home, Tyson said he was ushered through the palace to meet President Marc Ravalomanana. The palace is not the gaudy place Didier Ratsiraka, the former president, had built outside of the capital, Tyson said, but rather the same building Ravalomanana lived in as mayor of Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city of 4 million people.
The president was wearing a dress shirt and jeans, and Tyson noticed on his desk the engraved ACU clock from The Campus Store he had given to the president’s chief of staff to deliver to him.
“Tell me about your university,” said Ravalomanana as the two sat down in his office.
Tyson described why he was visiting Madagascar and detailed ACU’s Christian mission.
Ravalomanana leaned forward, Tyson recalled, then hit his desk with his fist and said, “That’s what I want. I want to send 22 students to your university.”
“Well we’ve never had one student from Madagascar,” Tyson said. “So of course I was taken aback and said, ‘Well, that’s wonderful. Tell me, what’s your vision?'”
The president began to describe the poor economic status of his country and said he himself is a Christian businessman and a capitalist who made his own fortune. He said he is OK financially, but most Malagasy aren’t.
Madagascar, an island nation of 17 million people off the southeastern coast of Africa, was a colony of France for almost 70 years, gaining independence in 1960. The nation endured socialist-leaning presidents, Tyson said, and the economy began to decline.
Ravalomanana was mayor of Antananarivo and ran for president in December 2001 against incumbent Ratsiraka, who had ruled since 1975, but the election results were inconclusive with both candidates claiming victory. Violence erupted, and for months both men claimed the presidency. In February of 2002, Ravalomanana declared himself president and was publicly affirmed in June by Wanda Nesbitt, U.S. ambassador to Madagascar. Now, Tyson said, Ravalomanana is trying to bring the country out of its economic crisis.
Madagascar’s main industries are agriculture and textiles. Natives can be seen climbing the winding dirt roads throughout the city barefoot, some with baskets of produce or merchandise balanced on their heads. The average annual income is $800.
Ideally, Ravalomanana wanted one student from each of Madagascar’s 22 regions to attend ACU, and he was hoping to have them there in January. He indicated to Tyson that the government of Madagascar would send the students, and he wasn’t asking ACU to pay.
When Tyson arrived at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport Sunday afternoon, he called Dr. Royce Money immediately.
“You’re never going to guess what happened,” Tyson said to Money. “Well, I don’t know how to explain this, but basically, Madagascar wants to send 22 students to ACU.”
Back in Abilene, Tyson formed a team of people from across campus trying to plan exactly how to bring students from Madagascar to the university, mapping out every possible obstacle in the journey and planning for the needs of the students.
For months, Tyson tried to communicate with the president’s chiefs of staff and protocol, but he didn’t get the reception he had anticipated. In March, Tyson made a second trip to Madagascar to meet with the president’s new minister of education, who had not heard of the project, and with members of the World Bank to develop plans to send students to ACU.
After many meetings, one of the World Bank representatives finally said, “If the government wants to send 22 students to ACU, they can. What I really want to know is would you be willing to consider building a branch of ACU in Madagascar?”
“Well,” Tyson said, “we would be willing to take a look at that, but let’s do one thing at a time.”
At a meeting with Ravalomanana the next day, the minister of education told the president they had found funding through World Bank to send 22 students to ACU, costing $2.6 million over four years. World Bank loaned the money to the government for full-tuition scholarships, and the government paid the university.
“The president began to applaud,” Tyson said. “Well, we all began to applaud.”
Finding the students
Advertisements for the scholarships were broadcast in the month of May on national radio, television and in newspapers. At the end of the month, 1,031 completed applications had been received.
“Now to kind of get a little context,” Tyson said, “we got over 1,000 completed applications within 30 days in this one country. For the entire year last year, we received well over 4,000 applications from all other sources for new students to ACU.”
Only students who graduated in the spring of 2003 were eligible to apply, and only about 20 percent of the population in Madagascar attends high school, with the average family sending its children to school from four to six years, sometimes as many as eight. The students who applied, however, had finished high school and were in their first years at a college.
Carolle Ranaivoarivelo was in her first year at the University of Antananarivo when she heard about the opportunity and decided to apply. She said she wanted to study in America because she considered it one of the most powerful countries in the world, and the technology available makes it easier for one to study.
“It’s not everyone who is given the opportunity to come to America to study; America is a kind of dream,” Carolle said. “Even if I applied, I never imagined that I could dream I could come to America.”
She mustered up the courage to apply, but she said she didn’t think she would be chosen, being only one person out of a thousand hopefuls.
“I was really nervous because 1,000 students applied, and it was a really great competition; in that case only the best can win,” Carolle said. “They wanted to select the best of the best, and I’m not the best so I was worried [and] nervous, but I just said, ‘I have nothing to lose, but things to gain in applying.'”
The American Embassy in Madagascar received applications and provided a space to interview the students, but did not take part in the decision making process.
Back on campus, admissions staff gathered data on the success of international students from French speaking schools to help develop criteria for admission. Standardized test scores could not be required because of the time constraints.
Meanwhile, in Madagascar, a businesswoman who provided support for internationals in that country developed a matrix for analyzing students’ files. Then Tyson and others narrowed the list of applicants to the top 150 prospects; a staff of four Malagasy narrowed the list to 75.
The businesswoman was able to contact most of the students to set up interviews, Tyson said, but some of the families lived in remote parts of the country and without telephones.
“So, some of these students who came for their interviews heard about it on the radio,” Tyson said.
Ted and Ellen Presley, former director and international student coordinator for the Center of International and Intercultural Education, respectively, and Tim Johnston, chief strategic enrollment officer, went to Madagascar in June for two rigorous weeks of meeting with the 75 applicants, who took an essay exam and had a 20-minute interview.
“I was really, really, really nervous,” Carolle said. “More than nervous, and I didn’t have confidence, but I’m in communications and I got to use the small amount of communication skills I have. Even though you’re scared, you have to hide your feelings sometimes, and that helped me. But I was really, really scared.”
On Sunday, June 27, the final decision was made and the 22 students were selected, representing 15 of the 22 regions of the nation.
By July 3, all of the students had been notified and came to a meeting at the minister of education’s office. When Carolle learned she had been accepted, she said her first reaction was to cry.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Only Carolle and one of the other students had been out of the country before, with the other student being the only one of the 22 who had a passport. Officials had a month to get the students passports, immigration documents and through interviews at the American Embassy, as well as have the government pay for their tuition.
“So, when you stop and think about what all happened in a very, very short period of time,” Tyson said, “it’s just an amazing story.”
By the time the money was transferred to ACU from the government, the exchange rate had fluctuated and enough money had been sent to send 23 students.
“They recommended another student, and we offered to provide a 24th student’s scholarship,” Tyson said. “So in the end we’ve had 22 students come at one time and two come later, so 24 here now.”
The Presleys went back in July and met with the students every day for two weeks, orienting them about American culture.
“The biggest difference between virtually any country in the world and the United States is our emphasis of individualism,” Ted Presley said.
Something they had to teach the students was that Americans may come across as being very selfish, Ted Presley said, but it shouldn’t be viewed that way.
“Americans share and are involved in all kinds of ways to help other people as far as benevolence,” he said. “We give more than most other people. But our sense of identity is wrapped up in self. ‘I am me,’ rather than ‘I am a part of this family’ or ‘I am a part of this tribe, or culture group or ethnic group.'”
He said they tried to give the students basic tools for learning about another culture, how to go to another country, learn how to survive and learn about the culture.
“In other words,” he said, “we tried to help them become kind of amateur anthropologists.”
The transition from Malagasy to American culture was difficult for Carolle, but she said the Presleys helped her prepare for the change. One of the main differences she said she has noticed is Americans’ self-reliance.
“American people value self-reliance, but in my country, self-reliance is said to be something really bad because you’re thought as selfish,” Carolle said.
“We always taught ourselves that we need to get together to make a bigger thing. The old tradition that says when you break you become sand, but when you come together you become strong, and that’s a Malagasy value – to never rely on yourself but to always listen to what society needs, what society says.”
Ted Presley said he taught the students to learn how to look at a different culture objectively.
“Ethnocentrism is one of the most difficult plagues to get rid of because we all have it,” Ellen Presley said. “We think we are the best and what we do is the best, and so does everybody else. By trying to help them and teach them anthropology, you learn to look at something you observe that at first looks ridiculous [and] just simply state here is what I see.”
Other concepts, such as time, vary drastically from the Malagasy’s culture to Americans, said Ellen Presley. For example, the word in Malagasy for future literally means behind, and the word for past means ahead. The future is behind them because they don’t know what it’s going to be, they can’t see it. The past is ahead of them because they know what happened and can see it.
“It’s a totally different concept,” Ellen Presley said. “For us, looking into their concept is foreign.”
Most of the students chosen are Christian, she said, with one Muslim. Tyson said many Christians in the country attend the Malagasy Church of Jesus Christ.
When Carolle applied for the scholarship, she said she didn’t know she would be attending ACU, or a Christian university for that matter. She is a Christian though, and said she was not forced into her faith by parents or others, but chose it. Her father is Catholic but she attended a Protestant church in Madagascar. She had never heard of the Church of Christ until she came to ACU, but that didn’t bother her.
“For me, as long as you pray to one God, the only God that is up above, and you believe in Jesus Christ, that’s the only thing that matters,” Carolle said.
Before the students were ready to leave for America, the Presleys walked through the steps and rehearsed going through immigration and the consulate at the airport, and what to say when questioned by immigration officers.
“It’s critical, it depends entirely on the immigration officer,” Ellen Presley said. “They have the power to say ‘I don’t think you’re a legitimate student, go home.'”
The Presleys also taught the students about American currency, how to write checks and use credit cards. One of the things that struck them, however, was the students’ reaction to the topic of money.
“Interestingly enough, we were talking about how they would probably need some spending money, and by their blank looks I knew something was not communicating,” Ellen Presley said. “So I said, ‘Well, when you go with your roommate to Wal-Mart and want to buy something like a CD or whatever'” you will need money. “They all said, ‘”this is not our priority.'”
The students were provided with basic necessities, Tyson said, such as linens and toiletries. Members of the Hillcrest and University churches of Christ also have donated items to the students and taken care of other needs. The students will all have on-campus jobs to provide spending money.
Ted Presley added, “One of the girls said, “Why do we need money?” The Madagascar Presidential Scholarship provides tuition and room and board to the students, so they don’t see a necessity for anything else, he said.
Tyson went back to Madagascar at the end of July, and when he arrived and met with the minister of education, he learned that Ravalomanana wanted to meet with the students. Tyson went to the American Cultural Center run by the American Embassy in Antananarivo, where the students were in class with the Presleys.
“The first time I ever met the students, I walked in and introduced myself and said, ‘My name is John Tyson, and the president wants to see you guys.'”
The group found taxis and held up traffic as they wound their way through the narrow, crowded streets of the capital city. When they arrived at the palace, the president talked with them for more than an hour.
“He was very personable and talked to them very directly about his expectations and the fact that they were not just going for themselves but they were going for their country, and he expected them to come back and make a difference in the country,” Tyson said. “He had them all stand up and introduce themselves, and then he would call randomly on different people and they would get up and talk about what their dreams were and what they were hoping to do. It was remarkable.”
Parents, some of whom had traveled for two or three days to get there, were invited to a closing ceremony at the Hilton Hotel with the students. Representatives of the Malagasy government, the U.S. State Department World Bank, students and their parents, the national press and finally those from ACU joined together to mark the occasion.
The students sang “This is the Day the Lord Has Made” and “Make Me a Servant” to the crowd in English.
Afterwards, at a reception, Tyson said parents who could not speak English would talk, using their children as interpreters.
“They would try to say thank you for this opportunity and indicate ‘take care of child,'” he said. “It was very… well it was just overwhelming.”
Life in Abilene
Carolle is having to adjust to life not only in America, but in Texas. Getting used to things as basic as food can be a task. Seeing a pot of beans in the Bean, she took a large scoop expecting the taste she is used to from back home. To her, they were too sweet, and she couldn’t stomach them.
She is homesick. She has never left her family before, and her culture does not allow her to truly move away from her parents until she is married. Luckily, Carolle said, she uses the Internet and occasional phone calls to keep in touch with her family. She said Internet cafes are prevalent in the cities of Madagascar, so most of the students have been able to contact their families.
“Yes, I miss them a lot,” she said. “I know it’s a great place, being here in America, but I can’t wait till I get back home because I miss home.”
The language barrier is also a problem. Six of the 24 students remain in English as a Second Language classes, trying to learn the language to be able to take regular courses. Carolle is enrolled in English, math, communication and Bible classes, but said she finds understanding her professors and peers difficult because of the speed with which Americans talk, as well as the dialects of Texans.
Once the students can overcome the language barrier and aren’t as homesick, she said, then they will be able to focus on their degrees and gaining knowledge to improve their country.
For now, Carolle is adapting to life at ACU and an American roommate. Leaving her country was the hardest thing she’s ever had to do, but she said Abilene is a great temporary home.
“Everything is so beautiful in Abilene,” Carolle said. “That’s true, I’m honest.
“It’s not what I thought of America. I thought America was violence, I thought America was what I see in the movies; but here it is such a beautiful place, and it’s really a Christian university.”