Breana Ross, our 2018 Global Citizen of the Year, smiling at the oceanfront

Breana Ross

Global Citizen of the Year Award • 2018 Winner

IES Abroad Program: Cape Town Customized Program

College/University: University of Miami, Class of 2019

Majors: Broadcast Journalism and Political Science, Africana Studies minor

Hometown: Clinton, Maryland

Breana's Story

In your application for this award, you reflected on the beginning of your experience, saying, “I want to say there were a lot of factors that I took into consideration when I decided to study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, but that would not be true…I heard the words ‘service learning’ and ‘youth’ and that was it.” Tell us more about this point in your journey.

I always knew that I wanted to travel the world but I knew that I did not want to do so in a way that would only benefit me. I did not want to just travel the world. I wanted to serve the world.

A few months before I decided to study abroad in South Africa, I went on a trip to London with my school for a week. I had a great time but something was missing. It did not feel right for me to be taking in all of these experiences in this new place without giving anything in return. That is when I knew my study abroad experience needed to be different.

My mother always told me about how her mission trip to Haiti transformed her life and her world view. She was serving in Haiti while also learning from their way of life. That is the type of experience I wanted. Since I had grown up working with youth at my local homeless shelter and through my service program at the University of Miami, Written in My Soul, I knew I wanted serving youth to be a part of my experience as well.

All of this led up to the conversation I had with my study abroad advisor. “Which programs offer a service component?”, I asked the advisor intently.

“Well our Cape Town program is the only program that offers a service learning component. Through this you can work with youth in schools, at medical clinics, or any sort of service you choose,” the advisor replied.

I heard the words “service learning” and “youth” and that was it. It was decided.

I did not yet know much of anything about the place in which I’d spend 6 months. I just knew that I would have the opportunity to serve youth who look like me and who, like me, are historically disadvantaged. I was hungry to serve, even if it was in a place I hardly knew a thing about. I guess that is what true passion looks like.

Your passion for storytelling and commitment to service have guided this difference you have made in the world. If you could sum it all up, how would you describe the positive impact you’ve had in the world through study abroad?

I think my experience abroad can be summed up with three main points: a passion for service brought me to South Africa, bridging my culture with others led me to have powerful experiences, and my thirst as a writer and storyteller allowed me to share those experiences with a global audience.

Through my study abroad experience in Cape Town, I was able to work with SHAWCO Education, a student-led service organization at the University of Cape Town. The mission of SHAWCO Education is “to practice and promote responsible citizenship in the South African context through health, education, and social entrepreneurship.”

Through SHAWCO, I was able to teach Reading and Math to 2nd and 3rd graders in Nyanga, a black township, and in Manenberg, a coloured township. I had a positive impact on my students, not only because I taught them Reading and Math while also teaching them about my language and culture, but also because I allowed them to teach me about their language and their culture as well. I did not act like I was the only person in the room that had something significant to teach and share. I placed value on what they could teach me as well.

As far as the storytelling aspect of my study abroad experience, I used my blog to write about lessons I’d learned about my own racial identity, the destitute poverty I witnessed on the day to day basis, and how racial issues were discussed much more freely, openly, and honestly in South Africa than in the United States.

I was also able to give others a platform to share their experiences through a video story I did on a local restaurant owner in the township of Langa, which gave her business publicity while also sharing a powerful story with a global audience.

Using my love for writing and storytelling allowed me to not only reflect on the experiences I was having, but I was also able to share my blogs and stories with an audience both in South Africa and back home in the United States to spark meaningful dialogue.

For many of my friends and family back home, my blog was a window into a world much different from what they know. In addition to sharing my perspective on my own blog, I was also able to share my perspectives as an American in South Africa through an article I wrote for the University of Cape Town’s newspaper. This article gave South African readers a taste of the experience of an American student through my eyes.

In sharing your experience teaching in Cape Town, you used the phrase “mutual learning experience.” What does this mean to you? And why is it so important?

Through my eyes, a mutual learning experience is one where both the student studying abroad and those they are interacting with in the community where they are studying benefit and grow from the study abroad experiences.

It is very easy for study abroad students to come to their host country and engage in learning experiences without sharing parts of themselves and allowing their host community to learn from them. It is also easy for study abroad students, specifically service learning students, to have a “savior complex” where they believe they are saving the community they are working with and teaching them while not being open to absorbing what they could learn from those they are serving.

Neither approach is best for maximizing an experience abroad. It is important to share parts of yourself and your culture with others while also being open to learning about their culture and their ideas.

What did you learn about the world through your experiences in Cape Town?

I learned that, while places and people around the world share differences, we share more similarities than we think we do.

While in South Africa, I realized that the country shares many of the same issues that plague America: poverty, racial tensions, and inequality in housing, education, and health care. Though these issues were more pronounced and more drastic in South Africa than they are in America, the way that South Africans addressed these issues was, in my opinion, much more progressive than the way Americans do.

South Africans do not shy away from uncomfortable topics. In fact, they spoke about race, and other topics that Americans would shy away, from openly and freely. For me, engaging in dialogue openly is the first step towards progressive action and change. Though America is considered the “leader of the free world,” there is a lot we can learn from countries that share the same issues we do.

What did you learn about yourself?

Perhaps the most important thing I learned about myself is that I am capable and independent enough to survive and thrive in a country that is completely foreign to me. I knew that I was adaptable, but the experience gave me the confidence and reassurance I needed to know that I would be able to move anywhere I need to in pursuing my career in journalism.

I also learned that I have a thirst to travel and experience new things. I did not realize how much I loved traveling until after my study abroad experience.

On a less positive note, I learned that my own racial identity is a lot less certain than I thought it was. As an African American, my experience in South Africa was sobering as I realized how much of my own culture and heritage was lost in the slave trade. I have now become hungry to know where I come from and where my roots lie.

“I don’t believe it is enough to go somewhere, have enriching and enlightening experiences, and then keep all that you have seen and learned to yourself. I think a large part of global citizenship is sharing eye-opening ideas and experiences that are realized while abroad with a global audience.”
Breana Ross • University of Miami • Cape Town - Customized Program

What role do you believe writing and storytelling plays in global citizenship?

I don’t believe it is enough to go somewhere, have enriching and enlightening experiences, and then keep all that you have seen and learned to yourself. I think a large part of global citizenship is sharing eye-opening ideas and experiences that are realized while abroad with a global audience.

Writing and storytelling helped me to do just that. I didn’t just keep the things I was seeing, learning, and experiencing to myself. I used my blog and my videos to share those experiences with a global audience and give them a look at a different part of the world through my eyes.

How has this experienced shaped your future? What’s next?

My experiences in South Africa have made me both a better servant and a better storyteller.

I now think of my service program, Written in My Soul, as a mutually beneficial learning experience rather than just my volunteers and I solely teaching the kids. I let my students share parts of themselves and teach me about their world as well. I use this to connect with them on a deeper level and build bridges, just like I did in South Africa. I believe this mindset will help me as I move towards expanding Written in My Soul into an official non-profit organization.

As a storyteller, I now think of my stories as providing a window into a world different to that of my viewers. I look for stories that tackle social issues, issues that Americans may find uncomfortable but South Africans would proudly and comfortably discuss.

I use my journalism as a voice for those that are sometimes viewed as voiceless. I, now, not only want to use my journalism career to report on national issues, but also international issues that often are overlooked and unnoticed. I think this passion will set me apart from other journalists as I begin my journey as an on-air reporter.

Perhaps most importantly, my experience abroad has helped me to adopt a new attitude, one that has rubbed off on many of my friends and family as well. I now have a joy and zeal for life that stems from my focus on what I have and not on what I don’t have. I learned that from eighty little 2nd and 3rd graders in Nyanga and Manenberg.

If you could give one piece of advice to future study abroad students, what would it be?

Enter your study abroad experience with an open mind, positive attitude, and a willingness to soak up all that you can from your host country.

However, make sure that you are also contributing something to the country where you are studying. Whether you are serving in the community, sharing your gifts and talents with others, or simply informing others about your culture and where you come from, make sure that you are serving the area where you’re living in some way

Try to do as many new things and step outside of your comfort zone as much as you can! This will help you make memories that will last a lifetime!

Want to hear more about Breana's story? Read how her experience studying and volunteering in South Africa influenced her identity in significant and surprising ways.

To further promote the value of service, Breana gave a TEDx talk at University of Miami on Wednesday, April 24th, titled “The Impact Money Can’t Buy”.