Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program

A celebration of cultural diversity of online distance learners

Access Culture is a programme developed to celebrate the diversity among African students in the online Mastercard Foundation Programme. 

Inga Ackermann, Babet Kwofie and Mourine Akasuka discuss the innovative programme geared towards online students that aimed to involve them in cultural activities and share elements of their culture to their peers.

Sharing culture through stories

In a world that is increasingly interconnected, cultural awareness stands as a beacon of hope for promoting equality, diversity, and inclusion.

Access Culture” is a well-being support initiative that aims at creating cultural awareness and promoting equality, acceptance and inclusion of online distance learners into The University of Edinburgh community.

Spearheaded by the trio of Dorcas Babet Kwofie, Mourine Akasuka, and Inga Ackermann, this project is a testament to the power of shared stories and the celebration of diversity among the Online Mastercard Foundation Program scholars hailing from the African continent.

In this article, we explore how empowering students to engage with cultural activities can foster a more inclusive and harmonious community of scholars.

Access to culture is a human right that is directly linked to the right to freedom of expression, the right to information and the right to education. For students with socioeconomic barriers, such as students experiencing economically disadvantaged circumstances, often students from the Global South, the right to access culture is a fundamental right.

The core mission of “Access Culture” was simple yet profound: to celebrate and nurture cultural awareness among the online student community, thereby fostering a more inclusive and harmonious environment and sense of belonging.

Through the support from the Student Staff Partnership Fund, it was possible to eliminate financial barriers to accessing cultural activities, empower students to take a break from online studies, and encourage them to explore and share their local culture.

Working in partnership

Our coordination team consists of two online distance student volunteers and an online learning and leadership coordinator, who began developing the project at the start of the second semester 2022.

Participants were encouraged to apply for a £20 “Access Culture” fund and complete a self-selected cultural activity between May and June. Students then reflected on their experience and shared the story with the community. Thirty-four online Mastercard Foundation scholars participated in the project.

By working together on this project, the coordination team and the student participants fostered a successful working relationship between staff and students.

All participating have not just improved their project management skills but, more importantly, the initiative opened a new line of communication not related to academic performance and procedures. It offered a space to slow down, reflect and share, which is sometimes missed in a fast-paced online learning environment. The initiative helped students and staff to get to know each other better and connect in a more meaningful way.

Stories emerging

The traditional Ghanian Adinkra symbol called Esono Anantam, which means ‘elephant footprint’ captures the spirit of our initiative. Esono Anantam symbolises the mark that one can make on their community and the world. As the cultural marks left to us by generations before, we encourage our students to leave their mark by sharing stories with the world.

We have collected 34 exciting stories where students engaged with local food, cultural events, historical places, sports activities, and nature sights. Several online scholars in the same location chose to engage with the activity together, while for some it was an opportunity to spend time discovering something new with their family and children.

Participants shared that the project helped them to harness or improve upon their creativity skills, which was evident in the stories they shared with us. Participants also commented that they would like the initiative to continue, as they want their stories to be heard by people from countries outside of the Scholars Program. For example, Emmanuel visited Ghana Ancestral Cave, while Theoneste visited the Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. Pertet from Kenya took time off work and spent a day in the Rhino Sanctuary with her family. Precious and Talent teamed up to explore the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

For some scholars this project was an opportunity to revisit their own culture. Elizabeth Nankya, MSc Digital Education student from Uganda shared:

I had never got a chance to eat Luwombo strew even though I am Ugandan, but thanks to this opportunity my dream came true. The fact that I was wearing an African dress while eating African food made me feel so proud of being an African. It was historical and insightful.

Elizabeth NankyaMSc Digital Education student

The project served as a powerful medium for students to share their unique stories, experiences, and traditions.

Spanning from visiting cultural landmarks to savouring traditional foods, and revealing the diverse forms of entertainment that enrich their respective communities. It displayed the richness and depth of African heritage and brought forth the idea that embracing cultural diversity is not merely an act of tolerance but a celebration of the human experience itself.

Learning through cultural exchange

At the end of the project, we sent out a survey to the participants to learn more about how they felt and asked them to describe their activity in just one word. Please see a word cloud of their responses below:

Word cloud

Scholars shared that the experience was very motivating and we couldn’t agree more. We do not want the stories to end.

We will be sharing the stories and scholars’ enthusiasm with the wider university community through our social media campaign and a dedicated online platform linked to the Scholars Program website. We have managed to secure funding for the next edition of ‘Access Culture” project in 2023/24.

By sharing personal stories, the scholars from the African continent helped dispel the misconceptions and stereotypes that often cloud people’s perceptions of cultures different from their own. As the project’s narratives unfold, we hope that it will compel audience to question their preconceived notions and biases. As we continue to strive for a more inclusive world, let us embrace the power of cultural awareness to build bridges of understanding and empathy across the globe.

Watch the video recording on their presentation at the learning and teaching conference 2023: 

Access Culture: Sharing Culture Through Stories