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Honors Study Abroad in South Africa engages students beyond the classroom

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - November 13, 2007

While doing an internship in the South African township of Khayelitsha, UConn student Jason Balfour met Vivian, a woman who ran a soup kitchen from her home for HIV/AIDS sufferers.

When he learned a few weeks later that her home had burned down, he was moved to try to help.

With fellow UConn student Kelly Witt, he went door-to-door soliciting donations from local businesses.

James Tinley, another UConn student who was doing an internship with the Cape Town Argus newspaper, wrote an article publicizing Vivian’s plight.

And an e-mail to UConn’s Honors Program prompted an offer of help from director Lynne Goodstein.

Soon, Vivian had the promise of a new home, and free delivery of 30 loaves of bread a day for her clients.

“We learned how easy it is to make a difference,” says Balfour.

The students were among a group of 17 from UConn participating in a semester-long Honors Study Abroad program in South Africa, offered this past spring for the second time.

The program combines coursework and service in the community. In 2006, the academic component focused on South African ecology. This year, it highlighted another of the country’s strengths, its arts and culture. Next year, the program will feature women’s studies.

“UConn Honors in Cape Town goes to the heart of what the University of Connecticut values: human rights, service to those in need, and the development of global citizens,” says Ross Lewin, director of Study Abroad.

While in South Africa, the group lived in a rented house in the suburb where the University of Cape Town campus is located.

“The living experience in the house all together is one of the learning situations we create for our students,” says Peter Bagley, a retired UConn professor of music, who led the program. “It provides a wonderful opportunity to share their experiences.”

The students spent two days a week in class and three days a week at their internship placement.

One class, on the politics and culture of South Africa, was taught by a local instructor. The other, a fine arts class, was taught by Bagley.

South Africa is an excellent place to study the arts, Bagley notes, especially because the arts played such a dramatic role in the expression of protest about apartheid.

“Even 10 years into this young democracy,” he says, “South Africans feel they have a long way to go to accomplish equality. South African arts reflect that anger.”

The final class project was to create a hypothetical School of Fine Arts at Cape Town. Each student had to develop three course proposals in art and art history, dramatic arts, or music that could be offered in Cape Town but not in Storrs.

“I wanted our students to expand their imagination,” Bagley says. “One student came up with courses on the art of beading and how prevalent this craft is, especially in the townships.”

UConn students Curran Kennedy, left, and Jason Balfour, with Vivian, whom they met during an Honors Study Abroad program in Cape Town, South Africa.
UConn students Curran Kennedy, left, and Jason Balfour, with Vivian, whom they met during an Honors Study Abroad program in Cape Town, South Africa.
Photo supplied by Jason Balfour

While the classes stretched the students intellectually, the internships provided experiences that were potentially life-changing.

“The heart and soul of the program is the internship experience,” says Bagley.

Like many classes with a community-based component, the South Africa program benefits from the knowledge and experience of a local contact, in this case the Rev. Vernon Rose. “He knows everyone,” says Bagley.

Rose identified the placement opportunities, and came to the U.S. to interview the candidates before they traveled to Cape Town.

Balfour, a junior majoring in accounting, worked at a non-profit organization that trains unemployed people for jobs in the hotel industry.

Chad Sagnella, a senior in UConn’s combined medical program, worked at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.

“I was working with kids with HIV, seeing them clinically as well as conducting research that involved antiretroviral drugs,” says Sagnella, who will start medical school next fall. “It provided me with an experience you can’t get in the classroom.”

Tamara Kramer, a senior majoring in political science, worked for an organization that gives free legal advice to people who suffer economic and human rights abuses. Kramer, who hopes to go to law school, undertook research on the problems of undocumented migrant workers.

“It was an amazing experience,” she says. “You’re getting more than class. You’re immersing yourself in the community, working and meeting people in South Africa.”

William Janiszewski, a senior majoring in music education, also valued the internship as a way to become involved in the community.

Janiszewski did his internship at a music school in one of the townships, teaching a class in music theory, giving individual guitar and voice lessons, and helping write some of the curriculum.

When the principal asked him to stay on, Janiszewski spent an extra two months at the school.

Janiszewski says he would recommend the experience to others, “because it’s a challenge. It’s not going on vacation. It’s really getting a different perspective of the world.”

Reporting by Sherry Fisher is included in this article.

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