An American Librarian Abroad

A Fulbright Scholar's experiences in Ethiopia

September 22, 2017

Joan Petit’s first-year information science graduate students at Jimma University in Ethiopia. Photo: Joan Petit.
Joan Petit’s first-year information science graduate students at Jimma University in Ethiopia. Photo: Joan Petit.

Ethiopia is one of the world’s oldest countries, with a manuscript tradition centered on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that dates back centuries. Ethiopia is also one of the world’s poorest countries, with a literacy rate of about 40%. But in recent years the economy has been booming, and the government has been making significant investments in higher education. In the late 1990s, Ethiopia had 20,000 students on two university campuses. Today there are more than 780,000 students on dozens of campuses throughout the country.

Over the past year, while on sabbatical from my position at Portland (Oreg.) State University Library, I had the privilege of serving as a Fulbright Scholar in the department of information science at Jimma University in Jimma, Ethiopia. I had contacted a few different Ethiopian universities hoping to garner an invitation to join their faculty, and Jimma University was enthusiastic about welcoming an experienced librarian to teach.

Joan Petit
Joan Petit

Jimma is a regional capital with a population of about 178,000 and is a major center for coffee production. Jimma University has 50,000 students and counting. With this growth comes opportunities for young Ethiopians, but it also presents significant challenges for universities, especially regarding staffing classrooms with qualified instructors. Currently there are no PhD programs in information or library science in Ethiopia, and bachelor and master of science classes are taught primarily by instructors with master’s degrees, supplemented by instructors from India, Nigeria, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

My primary responsibility was teaching 18 first-year information science graduate students whose aspirations included earning PhDs, teaching, and working in libraries. They came from throughout Ethiopia, and many have worked as teachers and in libraries; about half were working full time at the university when I was enrolled in school. I was able to travel to other campuses to present guest lectures on librarianship, open access, and open educational resources, and participate in programs at Jimma Public Library.

My family and I arrived in Jimma in September 2016, just a few weeks after major protests throughout the country disrupted daily life and delayed the start of classes. The political and social upheaval created a great deal of tension and uncertainty. As part of the state of emergency, the government, which runs telecommunications, limited social media access and cut off internet access via mobile phones for several months. Bandwidth is quite limited in Ethiopia; without mobile data, the only way to access email and the internet was on a university campus (limited only to students, staff, and faculty) or in hotels (prohibitively expensive for most Ethiopians).

My primary responsibility was teaching 18 first-year information science graduate students whose aspirations included earning PhDs, teaching, and working in libraries.

After a few weeks’ delay, I began teaching advanced information science. Higher education in Ethiopia is conducted in English, with British textbooks supplemented by articles relevant to Ethiopian library and information science. I also taught research methods, using a book from the Open Textbook Network, and advanced management, using an American textbook. With the exception of the online textbook, I brought my classroom materials with me from the US.

The department shared syllabi with me and encouraged me to update them and add insights. I spent hours reading textbooks and articles and preparing lectures and assignments. I learned a great deal about teaching and about librarianship. I received my MLS in 2006 and have worked in libraries since 2004, but teaching at Jimma University renewed my appreciation for our field and its principles.

My professional life in Ethiopia was quite fulfilling, but daily living could be a challenge. Power and water outages were frequent. Most Fulbright Scholars are traditional teaching faculty with PhDs, but I would encourage American librarians interested in spending time overseas to review the awards catalog and requirements and consider applying. It was an incredible privilege to live in Ethiopia and teach its future library leaders.