I’m excited for the Winter 2019 study abroad program! The planning for this program is in full force and the program is completely re-vamped from the first two years. This video was made from pictures I took on the 2017 and 2018 programs.
Tag Archives: Study Abroad
A few days ago I read a blog post called The weird questions I get asked about Africa. The post was written by a young Ghanian who (rightfully so) was at a boiling point for ignorant questions about the continent. She’s developed a little trick when talking to people about Ghana or Africa more generally. After tiring of explaining from the start she is from a country in West Africa named Ghana etc. She now has a tactic of
“when someone asks where I am from, i just say Africa. Whilst some people are content with it, others who appear to be learned will then ask which country in Africa, then i smile and know, i can actually have a conversation with this one, cause basically who wants to keep explaining themselves over things which are easy to come across on the internet when you really what to know”.
Who wants to be a constant Wikipedia page for people?
Back in January I ran into more Americans my first weekend in Johannesburg than I ever have before. I’m sure that’ll keep happening because AfroPunk now has a festival in South Africa. But I kept getting asked about “traditions” and in my head I’m thinking, “Um, people are just living their lives. Not everything you see is ‘an old ethnic tradition'”. For me it was a good reminder before I met my students that I need to be mindful of the exoctification of Africa. Its the difference of traveling and helping my students mindfully learn about South Africa, from a place of identification and closeness. I think its a delicate balance because in order to do that students need to be uncomfortable, but not so uncomfortable that they shut down.
One of the many pieces I have my students read is “Can a Trip Ever Be ‘Authentic'”, that examines this idea of how global-localization has changed the very idea of what it means to be in a place. But this is the new and authentic reality people everywhere are struggling with and against. So often I’ve found that people’s idea of “authentic” is actually finding experiences that match their preconceived notions of a place. This past year I tried to push against that notion each time my students mentioned that visiting a township was ‘real South Africa’. The next program I’m designing has more space for me to facilitate those conversations throughout their time within the country. I want to try and disrupt their ideas of who and what South Africa is and keeping them engaged throughout the entire program.
I want students to understand, even if it is only in matters of degrees, that South Africa is every bit as complicated and complex as the United States, Virginia, or even their university. As Taiye Selasi argued in her fantastic TED talk [click here] you may say that you are from the United States of America, but does anyone really have a relationship with the United States, all 50 of them? Our experiences are local, specific, and more complicated than we remember.
I would love to hear from other study abroad instructors how how to keep students engaged in these difficult “in between” spaces. Any thoughts, writing prompts? or suggested readings would be greatly appreciated!
“Going back to the villiage”
Johannesburg is famously easy to navigate this time of year because people have traveled home for the extended holidays. The Northern Virginia and D.C. metro areas experience this as well because so many people have moved there for work but are not from that area. One of the Instgram accounts I follow posted a picture from Accra showing a taxi rank from before the holidays and during the holidays with a dramatic difference between the two photos. While this story is known and the proverb is widely accepted, there are other people who travel back to their country in this same spirit.
The first person I met was on the flight from D.C. to Atlanta. We didn’t speak at first because he was busy texting before we took off. I figured He just wasn’t chatty and believe it or not I do try not to chat with people who aren’t interested in chatting. But then he saw me sorting through my boarding passes and showed me his phone where he’d typed out his question for me asking me if I was going to Johannesburg. I pulled my phone out and we had a little chat. He told me that he was going back to South Africa for his brother’s birthday. His brother is turning 50 and wanted to go back to South Africa, where they were born to celebrate. He told me they left South Africa in 1989, but he didn’t elaborate from there and I didn’t ask. When we boarded the plane in Atalanta I was sitting close to his brother and the rest of his family. I think all of the men in the family were deaf. I eventually caught his brother’s attention and wished him a happy birthday before we de-planed. I saw his brother from the back of the plane letting him know how I knew!
My seat mates from Atlanta to Johannesburg was a South African couple who had left the country in 1988 because they were classified as Indian during the Apartheid government and did not have full opportunities and freedom. They have dual citizenship as Canadians and South Africans and have been traveling back to South Africa since they left. They still have family here and now that they are both retired they can escape the unfogiving Canadian winter by traveling here during January and Febuary, which they told me they do every year. Toward the end of our flight we started a conversation about South Africa and why we were all going. They were facinated that I was bringing students from the United States to study social movements in South Africa. Our conversation wound around various topics from Robert Kennedy’s 1966 visit to South Africa to Cyril Ramaphosa and the complications (baggage) that come with him, and his respect for Thabo Mbeki and regret that he was pushed out of the presidency by Zuma. He told me that he still has hope for South Africa, but that he doesn’t expect South Africa will reach its potential for 30 or more years.
These brief encounters gave me a different framing for travel at this time of year and for the type of travel my students are about to embark upon.
As instructors sometimes it can be difficult to remember how disorienting university life can be to students. First year students have unique challenges that differ greatly from the transfer students, while first generation students have their own challenges throughout college. However, as professors we are quite comfortable in this environment with our own specialty. The corporate speak for what happens too often in these environments is silo thinking, each person operates in their own silo without interacting with other people. So, how can professors get the feeling of a beginner’s mind? Culture shock.
For two weeks I taught students a short-term study abroad program in South Africa and the theme of the course was social movements in South Africa. This was my 5th time in South Africa, but my first time teaching and leading a study abroad program. I did not have culture shock while teaching my students. I did have new experiences and of course just visiting the country in this new role was a new experience, but I did not experience culture shock. I knew the money, local customs, and had done almost all of the activities on the itinerary for my students, which is how it should be for the academic leader of a study abroad. It can make it difficult to remember what the feeling of culture shock is like both for the study abroad student and the new university student.
I felt disorienting culture shock my first time in South Africa, which was only a nine day visit. I was trying to absorb every single sight, sound, and smell. I didn’t know the currency and felt unsure with each encounter. But! South Africa was a place I’d wanted to go for a long time and I knew a lot about the country. Before my trip there I read everything I could, watched all of the movies about South Africa on Netflix, and scoured YouTube for South African music. Also, South Africa itself is very British still and you only have to be as uncomfortable as you want to be. You can always retreat into the comfort of familiar food, music, and TV shows. I mean, I even made pimento cheese spread while I was in South Africa. When I traveled to Namibia and Botswana I was slightly disoriented, but not full on culture shock.
Then I traveled to Tanzania.
I left the massive O.R. Tambo International airport in Johannesburg and I flew into the country on lovely South African Airlines. I had not fully researched the country because this was a vacation and not a work trip. I did what most people do for vacation. I looked up things on Trip Advisor, talked to friends who’d been here, or had connections to the country. I had my accommodations booked for my time in Zanzibar but I didn’t have a detailed plan because I only booked 3 full days. I thought I was totally good. I had the taxi booked from the Zanzibar airport to the other side of the island where I was staying. I was totally set.
lol…I was not prepared!
When we landed in Dar es Salaam I could tell the airport was smaller than the one I’d just left, but the size of the airport only scratched the surface. So, with the little research I’d done I didn’t think that I needed a visa for Tanzania upon arrival, but you do. Thankfully, the visa can be obtained upon arrival and you don’t have to go through your embassy. The fee for the visa is $150 in USD. And they want those dollars! So, when I walked into the airport I noticed the wall of customs and immigration forms. “Okay” I thought, “You’ve done this in several countries. No problem.” I was even excited at this point that I had the address for my accommodations. I thought that it was going to be smooth sailing from there.
However, I started to feel overwhelmed as I tried to make sense of the mass of people in front of me. There was no organization to the lines. There was obvious confusion with little care being taken to impose any order on the situation. I stood in one line and a guy came up to me and asked if I had my “yellow card”. No, but I have a letter saying that I don’t need it. He told me that he was just sent from one line to another to get vaccinated. He was coming into the country for business and I thought well, maybe I’ll pass since I’m just here for a few days. Then a man in a military uniform came up to me and asked if I was here for business or pleasure. I told him just three days of vacation. So, he sent me directly to customs. I finally reached my turn for the booth and she went through the process of taking my finger prints. I could barely hear her and she didn’t seem to have any desire or intent to make being understood by me (or anyone else) a priority. We went through this whole process and she asked, “Visa?”
“No”, I replied “I’m just here for only three days.” I tried to de-emphasize my time here as much as possible in that one sentence. It didn’t matter I needed a visa. Like I stated above the visa was $150 in USD. I don’t carry cash at home much less while traveling. So, I asked the lady where to get cash and she told me the ATM. Sounds simple, yes? Again, I was SO confused. By this time I was shuffled over to the visa area and another man in uniform took my passport. I asked him where I could get cash because I did not think that I could go outside. Well, that’s exactly what I needed to do. So…before even getting my passport stamped I went in and out of the immigration area twice and outside of the airport once. I went into the ATM room and there was a big dude hunkered over one of the machines. I walked in and said, “I am so sorry and I hope this doesn’t make you too uncomfortable, but how much money equals $150 USD? I have NO idea!” Without looking up he walked me through what I needed to do. Then I went back inside, asked someone else where to exchange my Tanzanian shillings for USD, and proceeded to complete the transaction.
It was about this point when I thought, “This is how our students feel.”
I know not everyone can travel to a foreign country, but teachers do need to find ways to get outside of their comfort zones and navigate new spaces and systems. If we can be reminded of what it means to be a beginner we do a service to our students.
A short-term study abroad program offers many benefits for students and instructor alike, however the experience can be quite emotional for all involved. There’s quite a few articles written about what to expect as you enter a culture often referred to as the “stages of homesickness” but should more accurately be called the types of homesickness (just like the “stages of grief” bs should be re-named but that’s for another day!). Even if students are not feeling homesick they are still feeling a wealth of emotions that are complicated and often contradictory. This is especially true when the topic and place is difficult.
I would not imagine that students going to London to study public relations would have the same difficult emotional journey that student going to South Africa to study social movements may face. Yesterday was a difficult day for my students because we did a township tour in Khayelitsha. While students had spent the day in Soweto they hadn’t done a walking tour and the parts of Soweto we were in were quite wealthy compared to Khayelitsha. Honestly, I was surprised again by the townships and expected to find more areas of entrepreneurship.
The tour experience for the students was a high level of discomfort because they didn’t feel appropriate going into people’s houses on a Sunday afternoon without warning. A couple of the students who were in the front of the group saw the woman heading the tour pay people to let us into their homes. We went into a barber shop and the men made appropriate comments to my female students. My students felt on display as much as the people in the townships were on display. One of the girls was asked if someone could take their picture with her and she was uncomfortable because she was unsure what he was going to do when he posed for the picture.
At one point on the tour one of the men in a house we were visiting said that the girls looked scared. He compared the students to visitors from other countries who’ve visited the township and, evidently, are very flamboyant while they’re visiting the township. The girls weren’t at all scared but they felt like people’s private lives weren’t for touring. People don’t drive through our neighborhoods, want to come into our homes, and randomly take pictures.
Also, I felt like our tour guide wasn’t as passionate or considerate as her mother may have been if she’d been the one to take us on our tour. The mother was the one who started the tour business and bed and breakfast about 15 years ago. She briefly spoke to us before we went to church and she told us about studying in the United States in the 1990s. She wanted to come back and help women start businesses. She wanted to be the one who would train them in entrepreneurship and help facilitate their start-ups. But when she came back to South Africa she wasn’t able to get loans from the banks to start that type of business. So, she started her B&B. She was very proud of her house, which they’d expanded to a quite large home with a garage. She now works with a lot of universities from the US and hosts students in her home as they volunteer with NGOs in South Africa. She really seemed to care deeply about the townships and giving people an experience. I didn’t get the same feeling from her daughter as she gave the tour. There seemed to be a class divide between her and the people whose homes she was asking to come in.
My students had a lot to say about the day too! Here’s links to a couple of their blogs:
If you have thoughts about touring townships please leave your comments or feedback below! Do you think that tourists should go into these spots? Why or why not?
“Not all those who wander are lost”-J.R.R. Tolkien
I’m not sure if you can read a study abroad blog without, at some point coming across that quote. However, not all those who travel are seek to have their minds broadened. Sometimes travel is just about a nice trip. I’ve had profoundly moving experiences domestically as well as when I’ve traveled internationally. I’ve also encountered people
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
― Mark Twain,
almost seemed to be determined not to change despite of the evidence around them. I’ve met a lady who in some ways confounds me and in others ways I feel like I’ve known her my whole life. She’s been living in South Africa for 8 years and came on two mission trips to the country before moving here. She lives in the house where we are staying in Cape Town and encounters/works with people from all over the world. However, when she talks about current political issues in South Africa she does not sound all that different from how the majority of white people in America talk about #BlackLivesMatter. She is one degree removed from saying “those people” but the phrase feels embedded in her thoughts, the language she knows better than to say.
When she started talking about the current university protests from last year and simply how wrong the students were, everyone in my little group (me included) just let her talk. It was only our second day at the house and we had five more to go. South Africans are quite open about controversial topics, but Americans are not and this was an American speaking. The Dutch couple eating with us did not have the same social constraints because they were leaving later that same day. So, when the American woman stated how wrong the students were for their demands of free higher education because “no one in the world gets that”, they quickly challenged her on the facts of the matter by stating the countries in Europe that do, indeed, get free bachelors education. I wondered if she was accepting the new information or if she was re-calclulating why the students were still wrong even given the new information.
Yesterday afternoon I brought her up to our guide that’s been with us since day one. But in that delicate way you have to do when you are not sure how the other person feels about the situation. He responded in the same delicate way but letting me know that he did not agree with her. Once I saw an opening then I stated flatly how I was a bit shocked that someone could live here for eight years and coming here for two more years before that and still not know very much about South Africa. He said that they “just let her talk because she knows everything already.” Honestly, it seems as though she has moved from one small bubble in the United States to another small bubble in South Africa.
After yesterday, I think my students feel like they are finally meeting South Africa. Yesterday, we spent the day in Soweto and really saw the city. This was the first time I felt like I had an appreciation for the true span and scope of Soweto. I’ve had the typical experience in the past of first the Apartheid Museum, then driving to Mandela’s house, taking a tour, and seeing the street performers who make a living from the tourist coming through. Then next it was Hector Pieterson Square. But this time we took time to spend the day there. The difference is like an appetizer sampler at a restaurant or sitting for a full meal.
First, I wanted to make sure we had plenty of time at the Apartheid Museum and so we blocked off 3 hours. Our guide said that we could block off three hours and at the end of the three hours we would still want to come back another day. I think some students definitely came away with that feeling. There’s an interview with Winnie Mandela that always amazes me. She’s asked by the interviewer if South Africa will ever have one man one vote and without a single hesitation she replied, “Yes.” Interviewer, “Who will be the first black president of South Africa?” Winnie Mandela, “Nelson Mandela.” Period. I believer this interview took place in the 1970s, when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island. There were no signs then of the Apartheid government falling or letting Mandela out of prison. Her resolute response floors me.
Second, we went to lunch in Soweto at a lady’s house who does this as a business. On the itinerary it was simply labeled “lunch with locals”. However, it was timed perfectly because I think we all needed this lunch after an intense and emotional morning at the museum. When you’re in a museum space sometimes you only come away with the heaviness of the past. The oppressor can still reach through the exhibit and grab a hold of you and drag you back. However, the South Africans that we meet lived through those experiences and are here, now, and looking forward. The food was expertly prepared. The mamas were so warm and welcoming. After we finished eating we sat in the circle where we asked each other questions (the visitors and the hosts). It was an interesting dialogue. Like everyone else I’ve encountered they wanted to know about Trump…we all felt a little closer with both country’s political situation feeling disconnected from the people in the cities. By the time we left I didn’t realize we’d been there for several hours, but I think we would have been happy to stay for several more!
The mamas talked openly to use about their experience with the xenophobic riots. One of them had a migrant worker renting from her in 2014 when violence broke out. She said that she protected the man by telling the guys that they just were not going to harm him, period. This echos what I’d heard from Mama Aziba, when I stayed in the township in Cape Town. It was also interesting to hear how the women are all practicing Christians (some in church some not) but they all also honor/talk to their ancestors. One lady said, “Why would I forget them? Without my ancestors I would not be here.” True for all of us. I’d asked them if they were Christian and still practiced their cultural traditions. All of them said some degree of both. If they’d asked me I would not be able to answer the same way because my people assimilated too well.
Once the conversation reached a natural lull the mamas said that they were going to give us Zulu names. I felt and still feel deeply uncomfortable with this. I talked to our guide about it, but communication was not clear between all the groups and it happened. I haven’t completely sorted through the many reasons why I find this deeply problematic, but I know I will marinate on this, talk through my thoughts aloud with some friends, and write more about it later.
No matter what, when you leave South Africa you’ll be a different person than when you arrived.