New program combines academics, service in South Africa| September 18, 2008
Of all the kids whom William and Mary senior Justin Reid mentored this July, one young man stood out.
“Athenkosi was probably the smallest of all the guys I worked with, but just the way he carried himself, I thought this could possibly be the next president of South Africa, if only he has the right opportunities and right resources,” said Reid.
This summer, Reid and other students from William and Mary had the opportunity to provide some of those resources to people living in Khayelitsha as they participated in the College’s first combination service-learning, study-abroad trip to the country. Administered by the Reves Center for International Studies, the new program had students learn about South Africa in an academic, classroom setting and then further that understanding by not only interacting with its people, but serving them.
“Our student body is so committed to public service and civic engagement, and the African Studies faculty have for several decades now wanted to have a William and Mary presence on the African continent,” said Guru Ghosh, director of the Global Education Office at the Reves Center. “It took a few years, but we were able to find the right place where William and Mary can now put its flag and now say we are on the African continent.”
About 20 students participated in the program’s inaugural trip, which was led by Berhanu Abegaz, a Professor of Economics at William and Mary. During the month-long trip, the students spent the first part of their days in class at the University of Cape Town, arguably the top-ranked university in Africa, said Abegaz. After class, the students partnered with SHAWCO (Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation), a student-run, non-governmental organization at the university, to head into Khayelitsha Township. Khayelitsha has about one million primarily squatter residents and is South Africa’s third largest township. There, the students provided educational classes and mentoring at a SHAWCO center. The first week, the students taught computer skills to adults, and, during the next two weeks, they provided tutoring and mentoring for middle-school-aged children.
After about three weeks in Cape Town, the students traveled to the world-famous nature reserve, the Kruger National Park, where they stayed at UNESCO South African Wildlife College. There, they visited the community around the park and attended lectures from experts in park management at the regional college “on the challenges they face as they try to maintain the park while also helping develop the surrounding community,” said Reid.
On the unique design of the new program, Abegaz said, “Being in Cape Town, a beautiful cosmopolitan city that reminds one of San Francisco and Vancouver, we did not want to limit the exposure of our students to a little piece of Europe in the southern tip of Africa. The service-learning in the township, the visits to rural communities and the bonus safari trip were all designed to give them a balanced perspective on an emerging post-racial society.”
The students had an impressive list of classes and lecturers, and they even had the unplanned opportunity to hear Bishop Desmond Tutu speak. Tutu is very familiar with William and Mary and its students. The 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner served as the College’s keynote commencement speaker two years ago.
In addition to what the students learned from the academic component of their trip, they said they also learned much from their interaction with the South Africans.
Jeanette Snider, a William and Mary senior, said that while she was in Cape Town, she gained “an entirely new perspective on my life and the life of other people around the world.”
“The people we interacted with were full of spirit, love and joy while living in the most inhumane situations,” she said. “I learned that family is the most important part of my life by listening to their stories and watching their interactions.”
Millions of poor black and coloured South Africans continue to live in densely-populated and racially segregated urban townships like Khayelitsha. Snider and Reid said they came to realize that South Africa and America are very similar.
“Although the demographics are different, many of the problems and potential within South Africa can be explained or understood by looking at the United States,” said Snider, citing the parallels between the U.S. civil rights movements and the South African anti-apartheid struggle.
Reid said he found it somewhat unsettling to see the two countries face similar challenges today. However, he found inspiration from the many South Africans who, though still dealing with the effects of apartheid, have made efforts to forgive and “end the cycle,” he said.
“I think every person we met gave us hope,” Reid said.
Those sort of realizations are just what Abegaz, Ghosh and their colleagues were after when they sought to create this program.
“The motivation behind the international service-learning component is to meld the art of learning-to-serve with serving-to-learn,” said Abegaz. “We get more out of the experience than our South African partners did thanks to the incredible generosity of the SHAWCO staff and the inquisitiveness of the young learners in the township.”
Though some William and Mary professors have led study-abroad trips that incorporated a service component before, this is the first combination service-learning, study-abroad program that will be continuously administered by the Reves Center. By partnering with SHAWCO, which only works with five American universities, William and Mary students now have an opportunity that is nearly impossible to replicate, said Ghosh.
“It’s one of the newest programs in the Reves Center and I’d argue it’s one of the most powerful experiences,” he said. “The colonial legacy of South Africa, the juxtaposition between poverty and wealth that exists in Cape Town -- all of that the students are exposed to. Without this service-learning experience in the townships, I don’t think many of our students would have been able to be exposed to that kind of deliberate educational experience.”
Though Reid has participated in both study-abroad and international service trips before, he said this combination study, service trip was completely different and something he will never forget.
“On a service trip, your main objective is to provide something for others and you tend to put yourself on the back burner,” he said. “But being there, there was that mission but it was okay to just immerse myself in this community and also just try to take away as much as possible. It was a service program, but it was also a life program.”
For more information on this and other Reves Center programs, visit http://web.wm.edu/revescenter/. For more about Reid’s experience in South Africa, check out his blog at http://www.wm.edu/blogs/studentblogs/justinreid/index.php.