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'Only use English for notice boards'

Language that they do not understand and noticeboards that are only in Afrikaans are among the things that make students feel excluded and unwelcome.

This is the finding of a group of third-year students at Stellenbosch University in visual arts after spending six weeks interviewing a diverse group of students on campus on diversity and what can be done to make them feel welcome.

The project, which was undertaken under the leadership of Dr Elmarie Costandius of the Department of Visual Arts, formed part of a much larger diversity programme through which the University is trying to make the student corps more diverse and to make students from everywhere feel welcome on the campus.

Twenty-five students in Visual Communication Design were divided into five groups. They undertook five projects through which they could enter into conversations with other students on the campus. One of the projects consisted of a temporary toilet on the Rooiplein on which questions on diversity were asked and answered as graffiti. Among the statements and questions were things like "Making your your private thoughts public" and "Do you feel at home?"

A second project consisted of pieces of wire over which icicle plants (vygies) were growing – with notices containing the words "We belong" and "Together we grow" being put up alongside. Another project comprised an open book with a three-dimensional sculpture cut from the pages, which was exhibited in the library. Mirrors were also installed in the study cubicles so that the student in front could like at the student behind him/her, and the student at the back could look at the student in front.

"In all the projects, an effort was made to get students to talk to each other and get to know each other across different boundaries," explains Costandius.

The conversations in which the art students sounded out other students on their views of diversity were documented carefully. This, along with visual material, formed part of the examination projects of the students. The research results will also be published in a book.

"It is clear from the research that many students feel alienated if they hear only Afrikaans on the campus and in lecture halls. Most of the notices also are only in Afrikaans and this is seriously alienating for students who speak other languages. For examples, if students cannot figure out from the notice boards where their examination venues are, it can lead to panic and fear," says Costandius.

According to Costandius it also became clear that students who did not have friends or did not participate in social activities more easily felt isolated than student with friends or who were members of student and social organisations.

The students prepared submissions of five minutes each for the Rector, Prof Russel Botman. He was so impressed by the project that he requested that the toilet be returned to the Rooiplein for the Council meeting, when the Stellenbosch University Institutional Intent and Strategy: 2013-2018 was launched.

"It was also clear that students want to feel that their opinions are important," says Costandius. "As soon as they feel that are being involved, they feel important and also more welcome."

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