Isaak is an Ambassador who studied abroad in South Africa
Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you decide on this program?
Since my arrival at CSB/SJU my friends and I had heard many things about studying abroad. The majority of my nuclear family has spent significant amounts of time abroad which have also opened my mind to the possibility of studying abroad. During my sophomore year, I had planned on heading to Europe to see Greece and Rome on the Greco-Roman Program because of my interest in history and the two-for-one opportunity the trip provided. I found myself drifting away from this choice for several reasons. I had been involved with several volunteer programs both on campus and off campus for the last few years and I knew how much I loved volunteering and helping others. I soon began to learn about more and more about myself and what drove me in life... so I thought deeper about my choice of where to study abroad and the impact it would have on me as a person. I had heard plenty of things about South Africa. Many of the things I had heard were superficial: "You're going to live on the ocean!" or "Traveling around the country is beautiful!" and "Cape Town is one of the coolest places you will ever seen!" These were all great things to hear, but what sold me was hearing previous students speak about their service learning component and what they learned about the immense cultural differences between home and South Africa. I thought really hard about it and realized that applying to the South Africa program would take me to the continent of Africa. "When else would I travel to Africa later in my life?" I asked myself, "...Let alone live there!" I had the opportunity for my life to be reversed...I could live as a minority. I would be traveling somewhere where few people would think of ever going. "Why would you choose to go to poverty stricken Africa?" some may ask. But I knew the stereotype of Africa, and I was ready to go and re-create my idea of what it means to be an African. I had heard about opportunities to volunteer in the townships and I knew about the HIV/AIDS crisis that South Africa struggles with. In addition, I realized would have an opportunity to dip into global medicine, what it means to practice medicine in a third world country in another country and learn more about why I wanted to pursue medicine. I was also ready to define poverty for myself instead of having National Geographic do it for me from my dorm room futon. Fortunately for me I had reached a time in my life where I learned a lot about who I was and what I wanted to get out of study abroad. I thought long and hard when choosing the South Africa program...I ended up with an unforgettable perfect experience abroad.
Briefly describe a specific cultural experience you had on your trip that made a lasting impression.
Traveling was fun. Cape Town was awesome. Taking three-day weekend road trips was unbelievable. Living across the street from the tropical shores of the Indian Ocean... incredible. These were pretty amazing things, no doubt, but what changed my life was working in the Missionvale Township's free-of-charge Missionvale Care Center. Missionvale is a rusty shackland of 150,000 people with only 16 water taps for all of them. The citizens all live well below the poverty line and over 75% of them are unemployed. Estimates say that approximately 3 out of every 5 people have either HIV or AIDS.
Just as everyone on the trip was involved with service learning at one of three sites available to us, I was at the service site that involved a Care Center that was established by an Irish Nun named Sister Ethel who has been visited by Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and many other famous world figures. Her operation however is very humble (it started out under a tree) Now it consists of a clinic, church, food shelf, clothing warehouse, and many other services free of charge. I worked in the clinic with a volunteer doctor and several volunteer pharmacists and other professional staff. The things I saw, which were namely HIV/AIDS (70-80% of patients) and TB (80-85% of patients) were disheartening and emotionally tolling. Every day I was humbled when we interacted with the people from the township. One memory I have is the time when I purchased a piece of fruit from a man who didn't know how to count and couldn't even make change of a 5 Rand coin. Many other times, in fact daily, it would almost bring you to tears when people would walk up with their daily weeks' worth of bread and beans and thank and bless us for coming all the way from America to help them.
My mind had been opened to the world and the inequities that exist within it. What we see at home is not the standard throughout the world, and even though most people may know that, it is means something to know it by seeing it firsthand. I have become more aware of what I have in relation to the rest of the world and have seen some of the worst poverty and disease that plagues the world today.
Describe your overall study abroad experience.
Without a doubt studying abroad changed my life. Superficially, I have learned to travel internationally, navigate another country safely, and lived up my time abroad on the beach and out on the town. However, I have also 'reentered' the world with a new outlook and open mind to global issues of health, race, poverty, and politics. My home, my country, and my life is not what you find throughout the world. I have changed since my time abroad and most of all I am an enlightened person with a wish to help change the world with an educated and open mind.
Based on your experiences abroad, what are some of the benefits of spending a semester abroad? How has studying abroad contributed to your personal, academic, and professional development?
Personally, I have found that my study abroad experience has contributed to my personal life in many different ways. I have experienced what it is like to live as a minority, the humbling feeling from seeing widespread poverty, and how important it is to live life with an open mind. Academically, I was able to satisfy many requirements, mainly for the common curriculum at St. Ben's and St. John's. The classes I took however had much, much more bang for their buck. I learned culture, politics, science, gender issues, and writing from and African perspective. Undoubtedly, these were some of the richest and worthwhile courses I have taken (and may ever take!). Although listed as disciplinary-specific courses, they were hardly that. Each incorporated all aspects of South Africa: politics, science, ethics, gender, poverty, literature, music, history and race to mention a few. Professionally, I will be able to speak about a life changing experience abroad. I will be able to speak about foreign medicine, health and global issues many Americans may only see on television that I had seen, and even touched. Firsthand. Today, I am much more of a well-rounded and better-suited applicant for my admission to graduate school, medical school, or any other job I choose than I would have ever been without studying abroad. There is no doubt in my mind that my experience will help propel me in any career path I may choose.
What advice can you offer for CSB/SJU students who are considering or planning to study abroad?
Study Abroad. Take your time and take and introspective look at yourself. Studying abroad will benefit you, no matter who you are. There are many excuses not to...sports, academics or the classic 'my major is holding me back.' Trust me, there is always a way to get into a semester long program that will fit into your college career. Biology majors, accounting majors biochemistry majors, education majors, psychology majors, several double majors and many others joined me on my trip. If not anything professional or academic: Studying abroad is a way to make 29 new best friends, get to know a professor, see the world... and yourself, from a new global perspective.
Do you have questions about studying abroad in South Africa? Email Isaak at firstname.lastname@example.org