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Study Abroad in South Africa

The first three months I studied in South Africa were the best of my life. The second three months on a return semester, a year later, were the worst.

Let’s make this clear: Studying abroad can be intense.

Especially when a deep component of your program involves, for lack of a better term, "do-gooder" work. I don’t mean to use that term lightly: It’s good to do good, especially when studying in a Third World country. Be it teaching, community development, or any other way you can think of to use your comparative affluence and education to help less developed parts of the world, these sorts of activities teach you far more than a university classroom ever will. They also remind a world where anti-Americanism is in vogue that the U.S.A. is made up of complex, individual citizens, many of whom are curious about the Earth around them.

In South Africa, I worked with the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in their after-school department, shipping out to play and tutor children in some of Cape Town’s poorest shantytowns. Each student in our program was driven out, every day, to schools where we found ourselves in a world entirely removed from collegiate comfort. Tin-and-wood shacks. Appalling crime. And the economic trauma of the desperately poor, combined with the amazing resilience of communities that are weathering poverty.

I say "every day," but that isn’t entirely true, and that’s where "do-gooding" difficulties start to arise. Usually, when we drove out to a school, clouds of kids would surround our vans and pound on the windows, bursting with joy. But then there were the days when you couldn’t or wouldn’t participate—because you had an exam, or were exhausted from crossing the lines between First World and Third, or more mundane excuses: You got too drunk the night before.

It’s one thing to disappoint a professor by not showing up to class. It’s entirely another to disappoint a school full of African children.

Or what happens when, like me, you start to identify with the children you are teaching, to the point that you believe they are, in some way, your children? Your responsibility? What happens when those kids misbehave? When another American student, as well-intentioned and dedicated to helping out as you, brings new basketballs to school and your kids don’t get to play with them? When they fight over the cookies you brought to school as a special snack? When an adult yells at one and smacks him in the face?

I vacillated when the boys I taught acted up, got angry and jealous at the new basketballs, stared in shock as they fought in the dust for half a cookie, and almost yelled at the adult, in that order. I can say, with absolute honesty, that all of the above helped me grow in ways that simply do not happen in the confines of a normal college campus. And I can say that all of the above were some of the most difficult, painful lessons I have ever learned.

It was worth it, more than I can really describe, but it was equally difficult. The important thing was allowing myself to connect. I did not hold back. I let myself become an open vessel to all of the experiences on offer.

I’ll offer this advice for those who go to the Third World to study abroad and are thinking of working in development, aid, teaching, etc.:

First of all: If you have the choice, try it. This is a matter of nothing ventured, nothing gained, although you will want to research any organizations you may be working with (your university should help with this process). Be warned that you may have to create work for yourself, especially at shoestring-budget programs.

Second: You can’t save the world. Or the country you are in. Even if you had the money to provide a village with running water and vaccinations, there are other villages over the next hill, and they probably just became jealous of the neighbors you helped. But you can help individuals. Forging connections is part of the beauty of going abroad. Try and leave a legacy, which can be anything from a self-sustainable development program to a new pen pal.

Third: Remember what you represent, and remember who you help. As an American in the developing world, you have a responsibility to act mature beyond your years, because you may be the only firsthand American exposure locals will ever experience. And the locals themselves have their own customs to respect. If you can’t learn the language (and you should at least learn some basics), learn the history. Try learning both. If they dress modestly, so should you. Don’t violate your principles, but be open to letting them evolve: I became open to new ideas in South Africa, but when that adult struck one of the kids I worked with, I vocally objected.

Finally: Don’t let the country become an extension of yourself. A poor country doesn’t exist to make you feel better about your place in the world. It has its own history, identity and narrative, and you are privileged to be helping them, not the other way around. This sounds like an easy lesson, but I believe it’s the one most commonly forgotten by even experienced aid workers. Remember: doing good in the world’s badlands is an enormous challenge. The opportunity to face it is one of the best we, as students, have on offer.