RICHMOND, Virginia — Many universities in the United States participate in study abroad programs where students receive the opportunity to travel to a country of their choice and take classes, participate in service-learning opportunities and learn about other countries’ unique cultural traditions. The Borgen Project spoke with Professors Susan Bodnar-Deren and Ewell Dingani Mthethwa of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to gain insight into the reality of studying abroad in South Africa.
Poverty Statistics in Southern Africa Countries
Bodnar-Deren and Mthethwa have directed study abroad programs in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia – Southern African countries with high rates of poverty and inequality. According to a Global Citizen article in 2020, about “one in five South Africans” live below the extreme poverty line. This equates to approximately 11 million citizens who are surviving on less than $1.90 per day (about $55 a month.)
Furthermore, the International Growth Center reported Mozambique’s extreme poverty rate at 60% in 2019. Therefore, roughly 18.2 million Mozambicans were living in circumstances of extreme impoverishment. Additionally, in 2020, following Namibia’s recession in 2016 and the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of Namibians living in poverty has increased to 1.6 million citizens, an unprecedented high.
The VCU Study Abroad Program
Many study abroad programs allow an immersive experience for students by encouraging the use of known skills to assist those in need. Mthethwa mentioned some of the skills that he utilized when traveling to South Africa in his study abroad group. “We just bring in the tools that we know,” says Mthethwa.
Mthethwa also stated that for the VCU program students, these tools consist of collaboration with organizations to work with local children in developing empowerment and sharing tools to help the children cope with living in their traumatic environments. Students join community hospital workers to learn how the hospital cares for African communities. Students also collect clothes from the U.S. to deliver to different schools in Africa, some with more than 1,000 students. One middle school, in particular, located on the border of Mozambique, educates students whose parents have HIV/AIDS and students who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS.
Additionally, Bodnar-Deren states that the opportunities in the program concentrate on a learning experience in cultural immersion that benefits learners from both sides of the world. “We validate and learn about traditional healing practices that are delivered by sangomas or traditional healers,” Bodnar-Deren says. The VCU program brings together sangomas from a particular region in South Africa to engage in dialogue with students, providing an opportunity for both sides to learn from each other.
These skills bring a sense of mindfulness to both the children in Africa and the students from the U.S. by creating learning opportunities for the U.S. students and providing the African students with tools to help them navigate through life successfully.
Validation Through Eye-Opening Experiences
Students who participate in service-learning study abroad programs also have the ability to take children’s minds off of the challenges that they face every day and add a sense of lightheartedness to their lives. For instance, students from the United States may partner with groups of students in other countries to organize activities that the students are not normally able to participate in.
“We took 50 students to the ocean with our VCU students,” says Bodnar-Deren. “These children, who’ve been orphaned, have never been to the ocean.” These eye-opening experiences are a crucial aspect of the true meaning behind helping those in poverty. Bodnar-Deren states that the top priority of study abroad programs in helping the impoverished is validation.
“The concept of validation is really, really critical,” says Bodnar-Deren. “We’ve really tried to embrace a model that some students might find difficult.” She states that the dominant type of service-learning consists of people from the west traveling to impoverished places in the world and bringing expertise to “save” impoverished people. However, Bodnar- Deren says this way of working with the impoverished community is “unethical” and “invalidating.”
By creating a sense of validation and equality among native people from Africa, students in study abroad programs alleviate some of the stress that accompanies living in poverty. Moreover, the impoverished are able to forget their everyday challenges and participate in activities that bring hope and happiness.
Dedication Despite COVID-19
Due to the pandemic, many study abroad programs have been put on the backburner until further notice. However, Bodnar-Deren and Mthethwa did not let that stop them from directing an online study abroad program over the summer. The dedication to making an impact was also visible in the students participating in the virtual program.
When speaking about the 2021 virtual summer program, Bodnar-Deren recalls visible changes in the students who made a conscious effort to wake up early and virtually join Mthethwa in South Africa to meet community leaders from that area. “There was this true reconceptualization in terms of viewing service,” Bodnar-Deren states.
Mthethwa states that the most significant outcome for a student in a service-centered study abroad program is unmeasurable growth. Study abroad students are able to visualize their mission and take action in impoverished communities because of their dedication. The pandemic has caused unrest in many communities all over the world and university study abroad students commit to continue helping communities most in need.
Study abroad programs educate students on the importance of service-learning through opportunities that emphasize the concept of creating a sense of validation and equality among communities from two different countries in order to generate an environment in which helping alleviate poverty is not an obligation but a passion. Bodnar-Deren and Mthethwa highlight this importance through their experiences.
In addition to participating in community work, such as collecting clothes to deliver to impoverished students, study abroad students also provide impoverished students native to other countries with skills to better cope with their living conditions. Bodnar-Deren and Mthethwa say that this community work, dedication, validation and growth are the attributes of study abroad programs that truly make a difference in world poverty.
– Lauren Spiers