My study abroad experience in South Africa was not anticipated but turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my college career. It was unexpected because I only planned on being able to afford one study abroad trip. The generosity of several organizations allowed me to travel to South Africa as I was awarded three scholarships that funded travel and tuition expenses. I am grateful for these awards because they made possible an extraordinary experience lasting four weeks in Cape Town and one week in Johannesburg.
During my time in South Africa I witnessed the remarkable natural beauty of one of the most biodiverse environments in the world, but more importantly I was confronted by conditions that illuminated many of the issues central to global studies. For the first time in my life I was exposed to poverty at a scale I could not even find in my rural home town; I witnessed racial disparities that exceeded those of which I was accustomed to in the United States; I observed the growing pains of a developing country; and more broadly I experienced the culmination of a specific historical context on the society that lived through it.
While I was in class I studied the history of U.S. foreign policy in Africa. Outside of class I volunteered at the Amy Foundation, an organization that ran after-school programs for students in the townships, the underdeveloped neighborhoods where black Africans were forcibly displaced to during apartheid. I helped teach students to learn English through interactive activities. My time volunteering made me question the ethics of volunteering abroad in sustainable ways. The program I was participating in identified as a “service learning” opportunity, but this was challenged by the unsustainability of a model that relied on visiting foreigners from more-developed countries who were only present for short periods of time. I cannot deny that my efforts were helpful to the Amy Foundation, but it forced me to contemplate the difficulties of creating sustainable models for volunteering abroad.