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The Large View of a Small World : Educator Has Traveled the Earth Spreading the Gospel of Globalism

November 26, 1987|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

To Dee Aker, it is so obvious.

If everyone else could just see, as she has after 25 years of worldwide travel, what a small world this is. And how the problems and struggles in one part of the world can be used as lessons for those across the continents.

But that kind of global outlook isn't always catchy with the masses. And certainly not here in sunny and bountiful Orange County.

So Aker, whose impressive resume looks as if it was designed by Rand McNally, tries her best to spread the globalism gospel from whatever spot she happens to be in at the moment, which for the last two years has been as director of the Orange County Center of United States International University.

The one-building facility, at 2300 Michelson Drive in Irvine, offers night classes for professionals seeking advanced degrees in business, education and psychology. But even to get a degree in business, for example, students have to take classes in psychology and anthropology as well.

The school's inherent message to the students, Aker says, "is to be conscious of the fact that we're not so singular, that there is an incredible interconnection and to see the connection with the past, with other cultures and other disciplines."

If USIU hadn't hired Aker five years ago at its San Diego campus, it would have had to invent her. Founded near San Diego in 1952 as California Western, the school aimed from the outset to provide students a global perspective for education. In addition to the San Diego campus, USIU has campuses in London, Nairobi and Mexico City.

Self-effacingly, Aker says, "I think I represent, in some sense, the kind of global awareness and international commitment of the school. The university is kind of a Peace Corps university."

Which, indeed, brings it full circle for Aker. As a college student in the early 1960s in Springfield, Mo., young Dee Aker read "The Ugly American." And then, larger than life, there was President John F. Kennedy, telling young Americans that they could leave the comfort of their homes and make a difference in the world.

Aker bought the package. In 1963, the 22-year-old biology major left the safety of Springfield and joined the Peace Corps in Colombia.

In the quarter-century since, Aker has seldom stopped running. "I don't think people who went into the Peace Corps disassociate that from themselves or ever make their community quite so closed or small anymore," she says.

Since her Peace Corps days, she has lived in a kibbutz in Israel and in a Japanese monastery, studying Buddhist art and painting. She studied art and music in India and then spent five years in East Africa.

Now 46, the tall, slender and soft-spoken Aker sat recently in the comfort of her Irvine office, setting up a VCR to play for a visitor a videotape that she made in Uganda earlier this year.

It's her latest real-life textbook. Once again, she has brought the seemingly faraway world into her own sphere. The last 25 years has done nothing, it seems, to dissuade Aker of the viability of the family of man.

The 16-minute presentation captures the lushness of Uganda, which Winston Churchill once called the "Pearl of Africa," and the splendor of vast Lake Victoria that borders it. But the TV screen also shows the aftermath of what many Americans think of when they think of Uganda: the genocidal blood bath and devastation perpetrated by former president Idi Amin in the late '70s.

"One of the things they (Ugandan officials who cooperated with the filming) wanted to show," she says as the film plays, "was what they started with. It was a lot, and they blew it."

The pictures underscore what she says: Rows of skulls left on the terrain, burned-out schools and factories and roads in downtown Kampala, the capital city, left unrepaired during the reign of terror and neglect of Amin and his immediate successors.

But amid the ruins, Uganda is rebuilding under a new president, Yoweri Museveni. In the film, he is telling Ugandans that democracy is "not a favor from a regime; it's a right of all the people."

That hope of a better future was what a Ugandan friend of Aker wanted her to see when he telephoned her last Christmas with a simple message: "Please come."

So she went, made a film of the experience and brought it back to Orange County.

"Uganda has become a real concern of mine," she says. "Number one, that we don't have an interest in Black Africa."

Americans need to realize that events in Africa do affect their lives, says Aker, adding: "And it's an incredible place where we could share opportunities. Uganda is particularly unique. . . . It could easily be the breadbasket for central Africa and a lot of east Africa."

That is the practical reason she shows the films to business classes at the Irvine center--to let them know of business opportunities. But there's another, more fundamental reason: to impart what she has come to believe, that the world community needs to work together.

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