Gavin Peter Reflects: Instilling a culture of caring on campus

February 28th, 2018


In the second of three instalments on Decennial recollections by founding staffulty member Gavin Peter, ALA's Director of Student life, Art and Culture, we learn how a campus with no drama department has a strong sense of art and drama – and an ingrained culture of caring... 


African Leadership Academy has built a reputation for more than just finding, growing and educating Africa’s finest young minds. It’s also known for marking milestones with true Afropolitan flair.

But the Decennial Celebrations was like no other. And this was evident in the build-up to this milestone event. While the day before any big do is generally marked with a frenzy of activity and not a little panic, ALA’s cultural custodian took frequent interruptions and constant questions – “Where do you want this to go?” “What shall we do with this?” “Gavin, could you walk with me a minute? – in his stride.

Which is not to say he wasn’t experiencing some turmoil. “I’m kind of really in an emotional rollercoaster, because it’s got a full circle feel to it,” says Gavin. “I knew prep was gonna be huge – and demanding – but I thought: “If you don’t party all the way through it, you’re gonna miss what it’s all about. So the sleep deprivation is all so worth it, because I’m scared of post-celebration depression; it’s really gonna be painful, but we do have the June one coming up, and I’m holding on to that.”

He’s referring not just to the need for ensuring calm in the chaos of pre-party planning, but what the Decennial Celebrations has unleashed in the number of faces turning up, expectedly and unexpectedly, in the lead up to this milestone event.

“The place is swarming with former students; I can see 10 years of the range of graduates – doesn’t matter which year, which generation – they’re all coming back, I can feel the age of the first classes.” And not all are students, adds Gavin wide-eyed in awe: “For an employee to come back, who worked here eight years ago – would you go back to a job you left eight years ago for a reunion?”

Defying definition

In the context of ALA, the answer is almost self-evident. “It makes sense when you think about this place, and what it really is,” acknowledges Gavin, in the very next breath. Alumni have been pointing it out in a stream of social media posts, too: “ALA is not just a school, it’s a deep culture, it’s a mindset. There’s an energy at that place that cannot be described. It’s something that’s felt and understood by those who have lived within it’s red bricked walls,” tweeted one elated alum.

A 10-year birthday for an institution that defies definition and has exceeded all expectation is cause for reflection, notes Gavin. “It feels like this is a natural place for the Academy to take a breath, to pause and reflect,” he notes.

Naturally, his reflections have led this highly qualified drama teacher to his own role at the Academy, and how it developed.


'We have no formal drama department in our school, yet we’ve hosted any number of productions over the years.'

“I remember having a conversation with the advisory board, asking why they’d hired me: ‘Why am I HERE?’ I asked. I was not teaching drama; the school didn’t even have a drama club – I found myself suddenly in charge of residence. And their response was that, out of every single school they interviewed, five said it was the most important hire you had to make: hire a drama teacher, as a drama department is most important… you need a sense of culture and identity. We have no formal drama department in our school, yet we’ve hosted any number of productions over the years.”

The 10-year Plan

The advisory board, adds Gavin, had interviewed leaders of some of the most prestigious schools in the world, to find out what the most crucial elements of success were. “They said: 'you have 10 years to set everything you want in your culture for the next 10 years – after that, it will be difficult to change',” recalls Gavin. “I heard that, and I thought: ‘Make sure you have everything you want in your culture every year – we have to keep storing this and passing it on, otherwise it could get lost, because we have new cohorts every year.'”

It’s a dictum that proved its precision over time, notes ALA’s Director of Student Life, Arts and Culture.

“It’s so true: try to change anything now…" he ventures. "We tried to change the dorm pass out time, and nearly had a riot on our hands. Students were proclaiming ‘DeanMust Fall; PeterMustFall… a 10-minute change in the time you have to leave the dorm to be ready for school, from half-past to 20 minutes past, and they couldn’t take it,” he laughs, adding: “You try to change snack time in this school… They were so right with that advice.”

He’s not just learned from that, says Gavin, but from the students themselves, on this student-led campus. “What I’ve learnt is that how you act, is how this culture passes on. If you greet, say thank you, drop your plate, check in at night, are kind to each other, it passes on...”

The effect can be powerful and lasting, he adds. “The year I saw it really powerfully in effect  was when the second years welcomed the first years. All day long, every student who arrived was met by smiling faces, and offers to help carry bags. The response from the first years was incredible; they couldn’t believe that their first impression was the opposite to what they were used to. Most said they were used to being bullied and even being beaten up by seniors as part of their initiation.”

He’s quick to point out that ALA’s culture of sharing and caring is not a unique phenomenon. “Our kids on this continent, that’s what they want to do; they want to be kind, caring, nurturing... That’s what they’re about. We just enable them to develop that natural instinct.”

Which, essentially, is how ALA’s Custodian of Culture has contributed to making campus a home for Africa’s emerging young leaders.