Ph.D. 1993

Reminiscing about my Sojourn at UNC and times in Sociology’s Hamilton Hall

In my mind I’m going to Carolina. How often had I not gone to Carolina in my mind over the last 32 years; and how has Carolina gone to my mind over all those years! This is a small account of those encounters, but one that speaks of deep appreciation.

In 1983, after being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship through the mediation of the US Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, I took leave of absence from the Department of Sociology of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in Cape Town, to study abroad in the USA. I had been on the faculty there since 1973, having started as a technical assistant in 1968. I arrived in Durham, NC, on a sweltering Summer’s day on August, 20, when the thermometer read 104 degrees, to start my graduate studies in the Sociology Department at UNC Chapel Hill. After the mild Cape Town late Winter of temperatures around 80, I was rather overwhelmed by this place that from the air, before landing, looked than nothing more than a densely wooded forest. To exacerbate things, on my first visit to Chapel Hill while waiting with me for the Trailways bus, an elderly African American man asked me: “Hey man, whe…(n) this buaha…(s) leavin, for Chappa Hee?”, causing extreme embarrassment when I had to tell him “I am not from this country” and did not know what he said. He had to repeat three times before I caught on.

Over time my accent and ability to comprehend the Southern accents from black and white faculty, staff, fellow students and friends, had improved to such an extent that Everett K. Wilson referred to me as: “Our British/South African fellow”. Later, after a few years at Carolina, a (new?) student on a bike, reacting to my response to his asking for directions, in amazement called out: “Hey, man where the hell are you from”? In time I had mastered some of this more and more, as the students I had taught in Introduction to Sociology and Social Problems courses had also come to understand me better as well. This of course did not prevent some very irate student, who did very badly on an essay test, to challenge my “right to grade his work” because I was “not an English speaker”! My outrage was only tempered by reminding myself of disciplinary repercussions had I reacted more violently other than to dismiss him.

Starting my graduate studies was prefaced by UNC’s demand that I take an English examination, which with the arrogance of a chip on the shoulder I refused on the basis that, although apartheid South Africa denied me many basic rights, it at least had English as one official language enshrined in the Constitution. In the end I had to concede and, by mutual agreement, wrote an essay on a South African story of my choice. My declared bias against apartheid had me troubled later when I was asked by Cathy Zimmer to be a stand-in for a graduate student seminar, and Eric Leitner after the presentation accused me of not recognizing my audience as intellectual – and “after all, what do blacks in South Africa want now”, he demanded. I replied that he did not want to understand and did not care to explain either.

I joined the Department with people such as Sally Boyd, Kristin Park, Krista Kaufmann, Dick Garnett, Meekum Kim, Randy Chase and others, whose names had faded from memory for the time being. My first academic encounters in classes of Francois Nielsen, Mike Powell, Rachel Rosenfeldt, and Henry Landsberger were rather interesting although not that challenging, as it covered territory I had already been very familiar with. Francois on handing back a first assignment, made quite a thing about my A3 size paper I used for typing, and went ahead to explain why and how the Germans invented it. The Social Development Theory class of Henry Landsberger, attended with Kristin Park and Krista Kaufmann and others, was initially rather frustrating because by that time I had already taught a senior level course on Development Studies back home, and did not appreciate being asked where India was on a blank map of the world. It reminded too much of the questions asked about whether I had bought the clothes I wore then, in the US, and how far I had to go before I saw lions back home. Oh how that chip on my shoulder became even heavier; weighing me down! And then the International Office still wanted to know if I wanted a host family, as if I did not know how a light switch or a cheque book works.

Peter Uhlenberg served as my faculty advisor, but I troubled him less with trivialities other than “stuff” (a word that Henry Landsberger detested, Kristin often reminded me) that had to do with my status in the Department and the US more generally. His quiet counsel had always impressed me and had been of considerable encouragement to me at the time. The help of Babe Andrew, Carol Wilson and other staff members were also of immense assistance to me to initially find my feet and to sort out tricky issues. The help of Judy Marks in the Department library is also fondly remembered and it was a pleasure to meet her and her husband here in Cape Town in March 2012. Thus my first semester was rather a breeze and time was also spent getting acquainted with progressive causes in the area, particularly in Durham, as I started to experience that people were suffering at the hands of others elsewhere than only in South Africa – and to discover what American football was all about. That was until Tarheel basketball got underway!

Weekdays at home were rather lonesome affairs until my family joined me on Christmas Eve 1983. Arriving in Carrboro with the windchill factor 7° below my children did not understand that the sunshine outside was not to be enjoyed after they spent time in warm airports and a friends recreation vehicle bringing them home. The two boys were already adept at English but my little daughters had to learn to speak English in America. This experience led to my 5 year old daughter, taking offence at a boy on the school bus making fun of her accent, slapping him and then being put of the school bus for a week. My second son William was also very annoyed with being asked if we lived in houses back home. In time all of them more than matched children in their respective cohorts and my two sons were both scoring way above the class and national averages on the CATs. James, the eldest, apart from his natural aptitude for figures, also was a natural ball handler and ended up playing football on the High School team after 4 years. He befriended Bernardo Harris who later played football for Carolina and the Green Bay Packers. My wife also got an Equal Opportunities Scholarship and enrolled in the School of Social Work. We both graduated with our Masters on the same day Michael Jordan got his BA. We spent many of our Sundays at the Reformed Church at the YMCA building on Airport Road, or alternatively at the Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham. A friend from Cape Town, Vernon Rose, served as the Interim Pastor while he did his Master of Divinity studies at Duke.

I was amazed by the very strong emphasis on empirical sociology and mathematics, as I had before then engaged in the strong Marxist bent, critical analysis and interpretative understanding of social reality, characterizing our analysis of South African society back home. When in my second semester Statistics became part of the menu, things became more challenging, as my high school mathematics had been 20 years rusted over and I had to update basic algebra again, let alone master statistics. Thus members of my cohort had an advantage over me here and especially in the next semester’s regression analysis, I was quite challenged. Common concepts to them, such as the “white noise” term, were foreign to me, having Eric in astonishment asking me: “You want to tell me you don’t know what ‘white noise’ is”? He did not know that I had already switched off when on the first day he wrote a series on numbers on the black board and asked us what the next logical number in the series was. None of us knew and he proceeded to explain what it was, and that behind that series lied his “whole social science philosophy”, and had lost me ever since. The next course on categorical data analysis with Peter Marsden became even more of a battle, that I eventually overcame.

The beginning of the general use of computers to do papers and research had us make use of the Odum Lab and facing Howard Aldrich’s wrath if we ate there or violated other rules he established. I had a very uncomfortable encounter one night when typing a large part of my Masters thesis on an old floppy disk and it became full and I did not know what to do as we were instructed not to save personal things on the hard drives, and there was no one around to assist me at the time. Naively and stupidly, of course, I took it out and lost all the typed data. I’ve also had nightmares at the Carolina Computer Centre, waiting for printouts of data runs which I still had to go and make sense of afterwards. Those anxieties continued as I started building models for the dissertation proposal, which I eventually gave up in favour of a qualitative data analysis, producing the dissertation.

Fantastic intellectual experiences were spent in Gerhard Lenski’s Ecological Evolutionary Theory classes, the Sociology of Health Care work with Bob Wilson, Sherryl Kleinmann’s Qualitative Methodology research course, and Social Movements with Tony Oberschall. Duncan McRae’s Senior Policy Development Seminar with senior students from the School of Public Health to prepare a report on Health Care to indigent poor in North Carolina for the State Legislature, was a fantastic hands on experience at policy making. I also attended interesting courses in the School of Public Health and in the Dental School as part of my interest in health care. At the Dental School my involvement in the UNC Craniofacial (Cleft Lip & Palate) Team with Ron Strauss, Team Leader, and the Team members, (observations of clinics and meetings, working with their clients), was of special significance, as the Team and its work became the subject of my Master’s Thesis and the PhD dissertation. To have been accepted almost as a full member of the Team had a very special meaning to me and served as immense encouragement to undertake the work to be done. Taking reading courses involving people such as Bob Konrad, one of my Dissertation Committee members, who steered many of my thoughts, also went a long way to strengthen my understanding of health care to be delivered to communities of people, and not just to individuals and for making profits off peoples’ misfortunes.

I left Carolina ABD in 1988 and could only qualify for study leave from UWC again 5 years later in 1993. Earlier the previous year Carol had informed me in writing that my Graduate School clock was running out, as I never officially applied for leave of absence. When I got in touch with Howard Aldrich he told me that I had until June 14 to finish the dissertation. How well I remember Ron Strauss, member of my Dissertation Committee, when I came back in January 1993, asking me with deep concern, how I was going to be able to finish the dissertation by the deadline. He became a massive source of support and later in 1994, I joined him in presenting a paper at the American Cleft Palate Association Meeting in Toronto, Canada. Bob Wilson, my Committee Chair, was an outstanding advisor, and along with Sherryl Kleinmann and Barbara Stenross, guided me splendidly to the completion of my dissertation. What a semester I spent at UNC in the Spring of ’93. Doing the work on the dissertation, along with extra reading and interviews, teaching a course on Contemporary South African Politics in the AfAm Department, and watch the Championship Team of ’93, led by George Lynch, on many a night, and more writing and socializing. I had it all done by April 14!

Social relations in the Department were immensely cemented by such occasions as the graduate student seminars, the Friday sherry, beer and nuts receptions, graduate student soft ball games, and the Spring and Fall picnics. Then there was Jack Kasarda’s Soirees with dancing to golden oldies from his impressive seven singles collections. Soon after the start of our first semester a party was organized by Sally Boyd at her house and when I asked if I should bring something was told “no, we are only going to have a ‘keg’ (I heard cake) and some snacks”. I found it strange that grown-ups will have a party with cake and unobtrusively tried to find it, until I discovered the keg of beer. It was interesting to establish friendship groups with a number of women (from different cohorts) on the one hand, as well as with a group of men, particularly with Dick Garnett form my own class, and members from the next cohort including Brad Buchner, Lionel Deang and Pat Tormey. Circulating between these groups often meant adopting different value positions in our respective positions on many issues. Randy Chase and I spent some wonderful discussions at our respective carrels, and his wife introduced me to pumpkin pie. Charles Warren and I often shared our experiences as men who had taught undergraduates before.

It was very interesting to observe that attitudes of initial associates, later to become friends, turn from what I experienced as indifference and self-centeredness, to warm, and a few cases lasting friendships. Dick Garnet (who explained the intricacies of football to me), his then wife Barb and I spent lots of hours, driving around to places like Jordan Lake, and later in his native state of Vermont, where I spent quality time with his family. Brad Buchner and I maintain a good relationship to this day and my wife and I had both visited him and his wife in Cheney, PA. Lionel and Alice Deang became very good friends at whose home we spent lots of time and I had occasion to visit them in Virgina during one of my trips to the US in 2006. On one occasion we travelled to Fredericksburg, VA, for the wedding of Pat and Cherryl Tormey. Brad, Dick, Pat and I attended the Southern Sociological Association meeting in Chattanooga, TN, and also later in Atlanta, where UNC was the host institution. For the reception Jack Kasarda had us take care of the catering for the function. In the Summer of 1987, Brad and I drove to Chicago to attend the American Sociological Association meetings and had an opportunity to see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.

During the Summer of 1985 I had the opportunity to spend time in Cabarrus County on the invitation of the Homemakers Extension Club down there, in their Adopt-a-Student Project. Arriving in Concord, I was met Sadie and Vic Harris who me with their family In Harrisburg, and the members of the groups in the area. Later that Summer my family and I went back there and further established relationships with them that remained very special to us, having us return a number of times. When years later Sadie’s daughter informed us of her Mum’s death my wife and I both started crying. Sadie used to refer to me as their African son. The trip might have not been because of my “chip on the shoulder” as initially I did not want to be “African monkey on show to a bunch of old white ladies”, who turned out not only to be very sweet and endearing, but also not all white as well. The women and men who were responsible for receiving me in their homes, accompanying me to various community facilities, institutions and places of interest, royally entertained, informed and enlightened me.

The support of the International Office at UNC was tremendous and membership of the International Students Society very special. I turned up the opportunity to become President in favour of an American undergraduate, arguing that the honour might serve her much better on a CV when she moves away from UNC. Here I joined with students from all over, including, El Salvador, Kenya, Tanzania, Nicaragua, India, Nigeria, China, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Korea, and elsewhere. While the association was mostly social, the organization established the relationships that helped me broaden my international horizons. It was in the Anti-apartheid Association that I had engaged in more significant political activities on campus, of course tempered by considerations to avoid any trouble with the law. This, however, did not deter my friend Dale McKinley who felt our Association needed more action and so he formed Action Against Apartheid and subsequently engaged in very radical and challenging activities that landed him in court. In one activity he chained himself to the door to a room where the FBI was recruiting students. One interesting aside of our organization was meeting Michael Jordan through Kenny Smith, a member of our Association. Our attempts to form an African Students Association were less successful during my time and was beset with bickering and doomed to fail.

However, my major African involvement found expression in an organization we formed in Durham along with students from North Carolina Central University and Duke, called the South African and Namibian Students Information Centre (SANSIC), with strong links to and support from Africa News in Durham. We held a number of information seminars and conferences on the UNC, Central and UNC-Greensboro campuses. A special honour for me was to be invited to take part in the 1985 South African History Seminar at East Carolina University in Greenville on the history of the South African churches in the role of and fight against apartheid. Another very interesting engagement was to teach an Introduction to Sociology course to Police officers in Durham, as part of an extension programme of Shaw University.

I had the privilege to go back to Carolina a number of times over the years. On leaving Chapel Hill I returned to me teaching job at UWC. Here my international experience at Carolina had stood me in good stead and I assumed a number of roles in committees at the University, one of it being member and the Chairperson of the Senate International Relations Committee. The main function initially was to manage the linkages with the University of Missouri (all four campuses), and related Historically Black institutions (HBUs) in the State, and with Howard University in Washington, DC. During visits to the US to deal with aspects of these linkages there were opportunities to visit UNC as well, among others exploring opportunities for academic collaboration, which unfortunately never came about. Later we established a link with Bard College to exchange students and in 1996 I spent a six weeks term as visiting scholar in the Department of Sociology at Bard, after delivering a guest lecture on Health Care in South Africa at the New School in New York City. In 1998 I spent a term in the Department of Sociology of the University of Missouri, St Louis, as visiting scholar, developing elements of our collaboration with faculty members.

The (then) Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg invited me in 1999 to join them in the Division of Public Relations to head up community partnerships and international relations, and I became Director of Public Relations after two years. When the University merged with the Technikon Witwatersrand and became the new University of Johannesburg in January 2005, I became the Director of Internationalisation, already having had that as a significant part of my earlier portfolio. I served in this capacity, responsible for all academic linkages, international students, exchange students, study abroad programmes, visits by international scholars, and managing relationships with the diplomatic corps, strategic international organizations, and political functionaries until my retirement in December 2011.

In my capacity as Director of Internationalisation I had opportunity to travel to universities and other institutions in many parts of the world, including 27 of the US states, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Belarus, United Arab Emirates, India, Singapore and Taiwan. I met with university managers, faculty, students, diplomats and other government officials and spoke to different audiences at universities and international conferences. I also visited a number of African countries including Botswana, Gabon, Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Namibia. I delivered papers in Namibia, Gabon, Senegal, Mexico, the USA, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and Hungary. Organising major events such as International Festivals colloquia and conferences was also part of the job. One important event organized during this period was the 9th Annual Conference of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA). I served on the Board of this organization for seven years, two of it as Vice-President. During 2013 I served out a contract position at the Central University of Technology, Free State, in Bloemfontein to develop their internationalisation strategy and establish their International Office. During that time I was also responsible for organizing the 13th Annual IEASA Conference, which they hosted.

Thus the refrain of the James Taylor song had been reversed for me in a very pleasant and personally enriching manner as Carolina and its impact on my life came back to my mind in such a bountiful manner over the years. I’ve not been personally able to give back to Carolina but believe that it had been paying dividends through my service to many students and other people in different parts of the globe. For, as Martin Luther King Jr. summed up John Donne’s 17th Century Meditation on life and death: “Somehow we are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Thanks for tying me into this global network.

jiimmyellis@gmail.com
Submitted September 2015