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.