Mairéad O’Grady is the Director of SEGL at ALA. She has been with The School for Ethics and Global Leadership (SEGL) since 2012 and moved to Johannesburg, South Africa in 2019 to launch the SEGL at ALA program. She teaches English/Writing & Rhetoric and French, and this past year marked her first decade as an educator.
Below is Mairéad’s reflection of the 2020-2021 SEGL program.
When our institutions began talks, more than three years ago now, about the idea of starting a joint program for American high school students on the ALA campus, we did the critical work of imagining worst-case scenarios: cultural missteps, injury and illness, leadership disagreements. A global pandemic, however, was not one of them. SEGL launched its first semester at ALA in January of 2020, excited and ready to bring emerging leaders from across the world together to become more ethical, entrepreneurial, and equipped to solve problems in their home communities.
The work we had done in Washington, DC since 2009 and the work ALA had done in Johannesburg since 2008 represented parallel paths with shared priorities, and we were poised for those paths to cross. Just two months in, though, the entire global community was faced with a shared problem, and our paths were forced to diverge – temporarily – as the coronavirus spread and travel became uncertain.
Nearly ten months later, as I watched the last SEGL student smile (through her mask!) at a South African Immigration officer, retrieve her stamped passport, and walk through the gate toward baggage claim, I began to feel that same twinge of excitement that I’d had back at the beginning of 2020. Up until our safe arrival, I had tried to manage my expectations of what would be possible: despite a deeper understanding of the virus and how to mitigate its spread, both the United States and South Africa were in the midst of their second waves at the start of our semester.
While it would have made sense to cancel the program at any time in those final months of 2020, having a partner like ALA is what gave SEGL’s leadership team the confidence and reassurance to move forward in January 2021. ALA’s network of public health experts was able to analyse and distill the statistics and give us a clear idea of exactly how our students would access treatment if they contracted COVID-19 (or needed any other kind of medical care during the semester). Our two schools, which had always been aligned in terms of pedagogy and priorities, were also aligned in preparation.
This level of preparation granted the 19 SEGL students the best possible opportunity – as our mission statement promises – this semester. It was an academic opportunity: classes with intellectually motivated SEGL and ALA peers; world-class instructors from both institutions; meetings with leaders in tech, entrepreneurship, climate change, and journalism from around the continent. It was an adventure opportunity: piecing together South Africa’s history and present through trips to Soweto, Victoria Yards, Pilanesberg National Park, and Constitution Hill. But perhaps most significantly, especially after nearly a year of quarantine, it was an interpersonal opportunity to build relationships with classmates, both American and African, who represent such an incredible diversity of lived experiences. One such relationship is that of Owen Gerah (SEGL) and Kemp Mihigo ’20 (ALA).
SEGL and ALA’s institutional paths have now crossed and combined in key ways, and perhaps the most important iteration of that is in the paths of our students, which cross on ALA’s campus, and will continue to cross on college campuses, and eventually in boardrooms and political campaigns and humanitarian work all over the world. I am already looking forward to the two SEGL cohorts who will join the ALA community in the 2021-2022 school year and for the continued forging of our partnership for many years to come.