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South Africa trip reshapes first-year students’ world view

First-year Lehigh students made quite an impression on this group of children in Cape Town, South Africa during their recent Global Citizenship intersession trip.

The Lehigh students who arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, for a first-year Global Citizenship intersession trip faced an under-funded community center populated by under-fed children and overworked counselors.

All of that was expected when they agreed to volunteer teaching young children at the center. What they didn’t expect was to bond so strongly with the children, and to feel such a powerful sense of gratification.

“This experience opened my eyes to a whole new world, to a place I’ve never been,” says James Coffey ’10. “I thought we might impact the children we worked with, but not to such a huge degree.”

Coffey, a first-year student from Wyomissing, Pa., added that he was struck that even someone with limited international or life experience could leave such a strong impression.

“Even being just a 19-year-old, I could have an impact on these kids,” he says. “It helped me learn to be more humble and grateful. Now, I feel blessed and I cherish my education, my family and the opportunities I’ve been given.”

That sort of reaction is hardly surprising, according to Hannah Stewart-Gambino, professor of political science and director of the Global Citizenship program. South Africa was selected for the 12-day trip to tap into the “enormous opportunity” the continent represents.

“South Africa shows the range of human faces of globalization quite dramatically—from the incredible, first-class development of the Victoria and Albert waterfront in Cape Town to the squalid living conditions and grinding poverty of the townships just a few miles away,” she says.

“The majority of the views expressed by the students during and since the Cape Town trip have focused on the transformative nature of the experience,” she says. “At one point in the trip, we spent an amazing couple of days with children living in crushing poverty in one of the townships. I truly believe that working with these children, and then seeing the absolutely atrocious conditions they live in, was literally life-changing for a number of our students.”

The Lehigh Global Citizenship (GC) program worked through GlobalPACT, a Rutgers-based group that pioneered an innovative training program in local problem-solving and grassroots organizing.

“The group has contacts in South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, that we were fortunate enough to be able to build a distinctively ‘GC’ trip for our first-year students,” she says. “That included working with children in a township, participating in discussions with South African journalists and activists, diving into cultural events like an outdoor New Year's Eve concert and a national soccer rivalry, and tasting the range of foods that such an ethnically diverse region can offer.”

The human faces of globalization

Lehigh freshman James Zurlo spends quality time with a South African child.


The Global Citizenship program, now in its fourth year, is designed to prepare students for engaged living in a culturally diverse and rapidly changing world, Stewart-Gambino says. The first-year trips are constructed to expose students to the human faces of globalization and take them outside their comfort zones to start engaging in the “real world” at the start of their college careers.

Liz Vogtsberger, a graduate student in English who served as a teaching assistant on the trip, observed the evolution of the Lehigh students’ behavior as they adjusted to the new environment.

“The first few days of the trip,” Vogtsberger says, “they’re divided in small cliques based on their comfort zones. But after the first major experience, those cliques break up—they start sitting by different people at dinner, talking to the chaperones and speakers more often, initiating conversations with people outside of the group, and asking better questions.”

By the time the Cape Town visit grew to a close, Vogtsberger says it was apparent that the students’ world views had changed.

“They can be overheard talking about their experiences beyond superficial descriptors like ‘that was awesome,’ or ‘I enjoyed that.’ Instead, they are now able to articulate the often very personal feelings elicited by the activity, and they can see how their experiences in the country relate to larger issues they've learned about in the classroom. The Global Citizenship trips really help them find access to a different kind of self,” she says.

Fellow teaching assistant and English grad student Colleen Clemens was impressed with the kindness and patience shown by the Lehigh students toward their young charges.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the tenacity and fortitude my students showed when teaching young children for two days in an educational environment unlike the one to which they are accustomed,” she says.

For James Zurlo ’10, the gratitude of the children he worked with in a day camp in the township of Kensington was something he found both striking and memorable.

“The head of the community center there told us that most of these kids didn’t have one source of positive influence in their lives, and that we were filling that void,” Zurlo says. “The appreciation these kids showed, I can say, was truly overwhelming. Their level of kindness and compassion was unbelievable – something you don’t even see in your own neighbor.”

The camp, which was organized under an NGO launched by Cape Town University, put the Lehigh students in charge of underprivileged 140 children who varied in age from 2 to 16.

“Our Lehigh students sang, organized, taught language and math curricula, played, laughed and cried with these kids,” says Magdalena Grudzinski-Hall, program development officer for the Global Citizenship program. “We were all physically and emotionally exhausted by the end of the second day.”

But the reward for their efforts came when they toured the township that was home to the children—a cluster of rusting metal shacks that shared a common water pipe.

“A really incredible experience”

“The families came out of their homes to welcome us into their neighborhood,” Grudzinski-Hall recalls. “One toothless man, a father of one of the children, came out and said loud and proud, ‘Thank you for working with our children. We appreciate all your work and thank you for teaching our children something new.’ It was a really incredible experience for all us.”

Lauren Brianerd ’10, says she finds herself talking about the trip to anyone who will listen.

“I’m not sure that I can ever explain to anyone how much I learned or how much the people I met there affected me,” she says. “They had the largest hearts in spite of the conditions they lived in. People I’ve met before like that can afford to have large hearts; they live comfortably and are already taken care of. These people aren’t living comfortably and are as impoverished as the others they help on a daily basis.”

The experience made such a strong impression on Brainerd that she’s determined to return: “I still have much to learn from these people.”

That reaction is fairly typical of college-aged students who are exposed to a study abroad experience early in their educational process, says Stewart-Gambino.

“I’m such a believer that this sort of experience makes you a better student,” she says. “One of the things that I love about taking freshman students is that these experiences often set them on a different path. They come back changed. They often change majors, even colleges. They’re able to connect what they’re learning in the classroom to what goes on outside out it. They start to see where they can have an impact.

“Having taken students abroad for years, I know for a fact,” she adds, “that study abroad students often return better students than they were when they left. These experiences tend to make them truly curious, sometimes for the first time in their lives. It opens them up in a way that a traditional education sometimes has failed to do for them.

“I am very proud of them,” she adds. “Watch for them in the future; we are going to be amazed at who they become and what they are going to accomplish in the world.”

For more information on Lehigh’s Global Citizenship program, please call (610) 758-3014 or visit the program’s Web site.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, January 25, 2007

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