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Inspiring students at home and abroad

A Mount Royal professor inspires students to take part in various international conferences as part of their post-secondary education

Yaw Asante, PhD, aside from being an accomplished academic — he is a specialist scholar of African literature and postcolonial theory and practice — is also a passionate champion for his students.

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MRU students, pictured here in Ghana

As Mount Royal establishes itself as a premiere undergraduate university, professors such as Asante are helping to further the school’s reputation of excellence by preparing students for post-graduation life, be it grad school or the start of their careers, with tangible experience.

“We occupy that paradoxical space of being an old institution, but a new university,” he explains the associate professor from his book-strewn English department office.

Asante is dedicated to exposing his English students to as many degree-related experiences as possible.

“Mount Royal is still in the process of reinventing itself,” Asante says. “The students have a huge role to play in this new identity.”

Last year alone, Asante helped facilitate trips to three different conferences for six of his honour English students. The conferences included: Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies in St. Lucia; Human Rights, Literature Arts and Social Sciences International Conference, in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan; and the 40th African Literature Association Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The South African conference had special significance because it marked the 20th anniversary of the official demise of Apartheid. He and fellow Mount Royal English associate professor and post-colonial scholar Kelly Hewson, PhD, took students to this landmark event, where they participated fully by presenting papers inspired by the conference topic.

“Dr. Asante encouraged me to submit my paper, even though I didn't think the conference would possibly want to include an undergraduate in any of their panels,” says recent honours English graduate Samantha Ferrari about the South Africa conference. “But my paper got accepted, and I am so thankful to him for another incredible experience.”
Mount Royal’s representation at the conference was so significant that a fellow attendee asked Asante’s table if Mount Royal was the new centre of study for African literature in North America. It will be one day, if he has anything to do with it.

“[The conferences were] lovely and formative experiences that confirmed my decision to apply to graduate school,” says Kyle Kinaschuk, a fourth year honours English student who attended the Michigan and St. Lucia conferences.

“It’s a very competitive world out there,” says Asante. “These conferences are a way of exposing students to what they can except when they go to graduate school, and they also help students build their CVs and get some hands on experience.”

It speaks to the passion of Asante’s students that many of them attended these conferences without any financial aide.

In addition to the conferences, Asante has organized near yearly field school trips to Ghana since 2007. He accompanies students to his home country to study African literature at its source. The trip counts as a senior-level English class, and comes with an intense, detailed syllabus that examines focused topics around African literature.

“It helps to give students context,” says Asante of the Ghana field schools. “When we are at Mount Royal talking about Africa, it’s very difficult for them to visualize it.”

There have been five visits to Ghana so far, and Asante will bring his next class to his beloved motherland again in 2015. The students get to meet with Ghanaian authors and local influencers, and to spend time at the University of Ghana. Staying close to the school helps students understand and appreciate just how privileged they are to study at Mount Royal. It also gives them, and Asante, a renewed sense of faith in the power of education.

“Our students would go to the University of Ghana campus and see how hardworking the students are, and how limited their resources are,” he says. “Even printing a paper they have written becomes difficult; there is the computer but no printer, so they have to go to Internet cafes to print.” After a brief pause, he adds, “And yet, they are not deterred.”

May, 2014 — Carla Ciccone