Faculty Profile: Dr. Barbara Welles-Nystrom

Submitted by Lisa Calderone MFA '11 on July 11, 2011

We all want what’s best for our children regardless of our culture.

Dr. Barbara Welles-Nystrom

Dual Citizenship: Sweden & U.S.

Program: Elementary Education

Vocational Training Team Leader: Bridgeport, Connecticut (District 7980)

“We all want what’s best for our children regardless of the culture,” says Barbara Welles-Nystrom, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education, who led a Rotarian Vocational Training Team from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Rustenburg, South Africa in January to explore challenges and best practices in the field. “We want to keep children safe and well fed, to share our values and learn about their values, and to encourage children, parents, and teachers to become active participants in their community and our world.”

As a dual citizen in Sweden and the USA, Welles-Nystrom specializes in cross-cultural comparative human development. She was eager to get involved with the Rotary Cultural Exchange Group when Chris Johnson, Director of International Programs, brought the opportunity to her attention in the Spring of 2010. Rotary Club Team #9400 from Rustenburg, South Africa was in town to discuss early childhood education with members of the Bridgeport Alliance for Young Children and the United Way. What emerged from this dynamic conversation was a grant application to Rotary International to establish a Vocational Training Team in Early Childhood Education in Bridgeport and Rustenburg, South Africa. The grant was developed and submitted in the early fall by Andre Brandmuller from Rotary Club 9400 in Middleburg, South Africa, and Nancy Riella, from Rotary Club 7980 in Colchester, Connecticut, and approved in December 2010. Members of the American team included:

  • Team Leader: Dr. Barbara Welles-Nystrom, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education, Fairfield University
  • Dr Laurie Noe, Professor and Early Childhood Program Coordinator at Housatonic Community College
  • Lindsay Davis, an Elementary Educator and kindergarten teacher (Bridgeport Schools)
  • Heather Ferguson, Speech Language Pathologist (Bridgeport Schools)
  • Donna Tompson-Bennett, a lawyer who is the Coordinator of the Bridgeport Public Schools Parent Center and Director of the Parent Leadership Training Institute PLT
  • Tim Bartlett, Director of the Bridgeport YMCA

Members of the South African team included:

  • Team Leader: Peter van den Elshout, a High School Prinicipal, now retired
  • Sean Tunmer, Clinical Psychologist, Program Director of the Early Childhood Education Programs of the Royal Bafokeng Institute.
  • Ms. Elaine Serekwane, Early Childhood Program Facilitator for the Royal Bafokeng Institute in the field of ECD
  • Ms. Maria Semenya, a Senior teacher/supervisor at the Semane pre-school, Phokeng
  • Mrs. Bertha Mohube, the teaching supervisor at Mphepele Preschool, Lesung Village
  • Ms. Obakeng Khunou, a teacher of the 2-4 year olds at BoepaTsopa preschool

We contacted Dr. Welles-Nystrom to share her experiences in this cross-cultural exchange with us.

Q. First, can you give us some background on your Fairfield experience as a faculty member in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions?

Since beginning my position with GSEAP, I have worked several years to develop a Master’s Program in Early Childhood Education for Initial Teacher Certification. That program has now been incorporated into our Elementary Education Program with a new name designating the broader range of teaching opportunity and expertise. The new Department is called Childhood Education and is directed by Dr. Jen Goldberg. I have worked closely with our Early Learning Center (ELC) on campus as the Academic Liaison, meeting regularly with the staff and parents. The ELC is now a small laboratory school with facilities for University students to make observations of the behaviors of young children between the ages of 3 months – 5 years. Several GSEAP Graduate Assistants work there each term, a collaboration initiated by Dean Franzosa and appreciated by all. Furthermore, I have continued to conduct research and research training with former colleagues from Sweden, and to continue with an international project on the family with colleagues at UCONN. I have worked hard to learn more about the early childhood opportunities and programs for children in our area, particularly in Bridgeport, and will continue to participate in several programs there, particularly the Bridgeport Alliance for Young Children and the United Way. My involvement in Rotary was something new for me, and I am very grateful that Chris Johnson introduced me to Rotary and to the fantastic opportunity to work with colleagues in South Africa. I hope to continue that important collaboration – we have so much to learn from each other.

Q. What were the goals of the Vocational Training Teams?

A. The goal of the team, in collaboration with an Early Childhood Education team from the Royal Bafokeng Institute (RBI), was to gain firsthand knowledge of the strengths and challenges of the rural child care centers there in order to later compare strengths and challenges from urban child care centers in Bridgeport, Conn. Both areas face similar hardships of poverty, disintegrating families, many who are migrants into the area with diverse languages and cultural practices, poor health, and low parental and child literacy. Our training activities included visiting rural early childhood centers (7 different schools), and discussing with the teachers the goals they had for the children and the pedagogy used. We also visited centers for young children with HIV Aides and special needs. Goals of this project included developing an improved training of the teachers in the early childhood settings. We have learned about the challenges facing our South African colleagues in respect to HIV Aids and the difficult situations regarding substandard housing and hygiene as well as general poverty for the families in the area. However, we also saw strengths within the families and general concern and affection for all children.

Q. What was the most impressive educational system you came across in South Africa?

The Royal Bafoking is the tribe in Northwest South Africa near the Botswana border. The King, his highness Kgosi Lerus Tshekedi Molotlegi, has designed and built a K-12 school called the LeBonne College, of the Royal Bafokeng Institute (RBI), which will support his people through the 21st century. Part of our training was held at the LeBonne College. The modern, beautifully-constructed buildings were designed by the King himself, a visionary sponsoring and supporting this school of excellence who has a degree in architecture and urban planning. One important aspect of the education offered the children of the Bafokeng Nation is the commitment to teaching the young children in 2 languages (Setswana as well as English). In regard to language development, we participated in many discussions and activities focused on early literacy and how to support it among children in poverty without children’s books written in the native language Setswana. Some books have been translated, but it is a challenging situation to find appropriate literature for children in this rural area of Africa that relates to their cultural heritage. Children in the early learning centers are also introduced to English through verbal and written activities. During our visit, we met with researchers who work at the RBI to discuss issues of childrearing and larger political issues such as genocide. We also made a visit to the Department of Education at the North West University in Potchefstroom. The Bafokeng culture is amazingly strong and more intact than many other tribal cultures in the area, perhaps due to the fact that their King owns the platinum mines so financial resources are not as big an issue for this ethnic group as it is elsewhere in South Africa. That being said, there is still a lot of poverty, inadequate housing, and lack of preschool opportunities for the rural children.

Q. Even though our country can’t tap into “platinum money,” what can we learn from the passion and support of his highness, Kgosi Lerus Tshekedi Molotlegi?

We need visionaries who understand that if you educate young children – the greatest resource any nation has – you invest in the future of your community, country, and the world. All children need education, and the vision to provide quality training for teachers of young children so that they can support their students in learning and becoming active, contributing members of their society is critical. Furthermore, the Rotarian vision of meeting, communicating, and working with colleagues from around the world sets the stage for learning from each other and understanding similarities and differences across and within cultures.

Q. In contrast to the King’s educational jewel, please describe the worst educational system you found on your visit to put this in context.

One of the worst pre-school environments we saw was one that had no direct ties yet with the RBI but had nonetheless some funds for children’s food. In this rural pre-school facility, there were about 30 youngsters around the age of 3. They all sat quietly at small desks and waited for the adults to tell them what to do. The adults, who were in their late 40’s / early 50’s, were not trained teachers; one woman was hired to cook for the children and the other to clean the facilities. There was another room of 4-year olds. These children had just been given some porridge for breakfast/lunch. There was so much inactivity that we finally asked if we could take the children out to play. They were allowed to go out with us and it seemed clear that many were thrilled with the opportunity, making us wonder how often the children were able to explore on their own. The outside space was large, but the grass needed to be cut. Some of the children were malnourished and probably several were suffering from HIV/AIDS; many are being raised by grandparents after their parents died from the AIDS epidemic.

Q. There’s mention of educators in both countries using online courses to become certified in early childhood education. Can you speak more about that, and the possibilities of online learning bridging educational gaps around the world?

Professor Laurie Noe of Housatonic Community College has set up a teacher training program for 12 pre-school teachers from the Royal Bafokeng area in South Africa, and 12 from the Bridgeport area. The idea is that the students will communicate over the net with each other, discuss their readings and projects, and learn about the cultural values and practices parents and teachers have with young children. The first course will begin this fall, 2011.

Q. How does early childhood education raise issues about global citizenship & the commonality of the “human race” in terms of parenting, education, and community support?

We all live on this planet and it does take a community of global citizens to raise children. Children have universal needs to be loved, given food, clothing and shelter, and be taught about the world. They need to feel safe and secure, and have good health. We must all unite behind these basic rights of the child. For me, as a faculty member of Fairfield University, I take seriously the visions of social justice, and the education of the whole person – mind, body, and spirit. Children who learn to read and write and participate in their communities will also be prepared to participate in the world. Together we can meet the challenges of the future, for they are many. Through our Rotary Club involvement, we now have a greater appreciation of each other’s programs as well as our own. Strengths and challenges exist in each setting, our settings are similar and different, and by working together we can develop new and better ways to interact with children and their families, supporting all in the goal of greater literacy and learning.

Q. What’s next for you?

I look forward to my return to Fairfield University this fall, after having had a rich sabbatical experience in Stockholm this past spring 2011. I will be teaching several courses and can’t wait to get back in the classroom. The graduate students in our program are of such high quality and exhibit such interest and commitment to being the best they can be in order to make their contribution to the world – it is a joy to work with them. I hope to share my insights about the South African exchange and get students involved in some way. There is much to be done.

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