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  February 10, 2003

Study Abroad In South Africa
Expands Students' Horizons
By Sherry Fisher

When Alfred Guante talks about South Africa, he can't help but smile. "From the moment the plane landed to the moment we took off, I made friends," says the UConn junior majoring in communications. "I feel like I have an extended family in South Africa. I felt like I was home."

Guante was one of nine students who participated in a three-week study abroad program there in January.

Image: CAP students in South Africa.

Students from the Center for Academic Programs traveled to South Africa for a study abroad program during the winter break. The trip was headed by Bidya Ranjeet, left, and Maria Martinez, second from left. The group is shown here with a tour guide, fourth from left, on Robben Island, the site of the maximum security prison where political prisoners - including Nelson Mandella -- were held during the apartheid era.

Photo Courtesy the Center for Academic Programs

Guante, whose family is from the Dominican Republic, hadn't been outside the United States since he was four years old. He says the trip has inspired him to travel to other countries. "As soon as I graduate and get a stable job, I'm going to travel," he says. And, he notes, South Africa will be one of the first places he'll visit: "I have to go back."

South Africa had the same effect on Khanh Ngo. He was especially excited about the people he met. "We have phone numbers and e-mail addresses and plan to send pictures," says Ngo, a senior majoring in physics. "We really miss those guys."

A Rare Opportunity
The program, a collaboration between UConn and the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, was offered to students who are part of Student Support Services (SSS), one of four federally funded programs offered through UConn's Center for Academic Programs. SSS services are offered to low-income background and/or first-generation college students. Fort Hare was selected because of the already established linkage between the two institutions .

"We want to give students in the program an opportunity to expand their horizons," says Maria Martinez, director of the Center for Academic Programs (CAP). "We tried to target students who would be impacted by the experience and had never done anything like this before. We want them to look beyond Storrs."

According to Martinez, many students in CAP don't take advantage of study abroad opportunities at UConn for various reasons, including financial constraints. The study abroad program through CAP, which was subsidized by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, is part of a national initiative to encourage students to study abroad even if they can't afford it. "They need to go beyond their institutions to find out about the world," says Martinez.

Guante says the trip was a rare opportunity. "The chance to travel doesn't come very often," he says.

The study abroad program in South Africa included a five-day visit to Cape Town, tours of cities, museums, and townships, and an intensive two-week course on the history of apartheid given at Fort Hare. The students were asked to keep a daily journal reflecting on their experiences. They stayed in a residence hall at Fort Hare and were hosted by a group of students from the university.

The students say the experience made them look at their lives differently. "I'm a changed person," says Ngo. "I value everything I have now and don't take anything for granted. At UConn, we have so much, yet I hear everyone complaining about things."

Gisselle Vasquez, a junior majoring in physiology and neurobiology who had never traveled overseas before, says the trip "opened my eyes to different cultures and lifestyles." She says visiting the townships, where "houses were made of material not suitable for living," touched her heart. "To see how one family was living with just one twin-sized bed had a big impact. It made you appreciate everything you have."

While Vasquez was shocked by some of the poverty, she was also "surprised by the country's beauty and how developed it was."

The media's portrayal of other countries is often misleading, the students say.

"A lot of what we see on TV isn't true," Ngo says. "All they show is war, disease, and the poor. South Africa has some of the most beautiful nature sites, the food is great, and the people are nice. It's nothing like what people thought."

Guante says "People in the U.S. shouldn't judge other countries if they haven't been there. A lot of stats lie. A lot of people lie."

Vasquez says she loved keeping a daily journal. "I'm pretty sure I'll never forget the image of a little barefoot boy asking for money, but my emotions and feelings as I took in the whole experience will be captured in my journal."

Common Ground
Martinez says the students from UConn and Fort Hare found they had common ground: "It was an amazing experience to see how the students from Fort Hare and our students, so many worlds apart, could work so well together. They learned so much from each other, and had much more in common than they thought."

Before the trip, staff and students worked with Amii Omara-Otunnu, UNESCO Chair in Comparative Human Rights and director of the UConn-Fort Hare linkage, who gave them a presentation on South Africa. The

executive director of student services from Fort Hare University, who was visiting UConn in November as part of the linkage, also gave the students a presentation to prepare them for the trip. The students will earn six credits for the course, which also includes an independent study with Omara-Otunnu this semester. They will be required to write a 10- to 15-page paper on their experience and the history of apartheid.

The trip to South Africa was the second study abroad program offered through CAP. Last summer, 11 SSS students spent three weeks in Liverpool, England, immersed in a course called "Innovation Out of Hardship" that focused on the cultural and political context of 400 years of black settlement and development in Liverpool, as well as the visible legacy of its role as a major slave port. The program, a collaboration between UConn and the University of Liverpool, was led by Bidya Ranjeet, director of the SSS program.

In Liverpool, students met with people, met with community groups, attended lectures on contemporary issues, and visited local sites of importance in the city's black social and cultural history. They earned three credits for the course, which also included readings in black historical scholarship, the creation of a portfolio, and an oral presentation. Students also took a three-credit independent study on Liverpool's black roots with Jeet Joshee, assistant dean and professor in the College of Continuing Studies. The program will be offered again this summer.

The Center for Academic Programs worked closely with UConn's financial aid office to select students, as the funding for the trip was need-based. Students interested in the program were selected based on a written essay, an interview, and recommendatio ns from their counselors.

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