Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Moving to South Africa - My 'What', 'Why' and 'How'

One day, a few years back, I was chatting with my Aunt’s partner during a family visit. I was researching places to study outside of Canada and we discussed Cape Town at length (he is originally from South Africa). As we parted ways, he clapped his warm, heavy hand on my shoulder, smiled and said ‘Girl, you’ve gotta get yourself to Cape Town!’

This was the moment I first knew I would go to South Africa. I have been asked many versions of the ‘why are doing what you’re doing?’ question so I thought I would dedicate a post to the story of how it started and how and why I’ve come to move to Cape Town.   

University of Cape Town Middle/Upper Campus

I began working full time when I was 21 and would dread receiving my annual pension statement. A pension is a very privileged thing to have, but when you have been working for 5 years and still have 30 to go, it can be a bit daunting. Despite this, I was fascinated by the workings of government and loved working in both strategy and international relations.

It never crossed my mind that I would want to go back to school after finishing my bachelor degree. I had studied business because I thought it would be practical – not because I was particularly excited by the topic. After a couple of years of working, I began to feel an increasing urge to study something that fascinated me.  

At the same time, I was volunteering at the city’s local AIDS Service Organization and was exposed to social justice advocacy. I was excited to see passionate people working to benefit their communities and it felt great to get involved with an issue that I thought to be fundamentally important. At the same time, I was appalled to learn that there is oftentimes a link between HIV and marginalization. I became curious about if this link exists in other regions, especially ones where HIV is endemic. I wanted to get involved further with development and social development initiatives.

Enter Rotary International.

I grew up hearing about Rotary from my parent’s close friends, Bob and Mary Jean. I loved the concept of ‘Service above self’ and the goal of the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship program, which funds students to study in different parts of the world with an aim to promote world peace through intercultural understanding.

I applied unsuccessfully 2 years in a row for the scholarship. The second year, the Rotary Club of Ottawa provided me with two mentors and sent me to the district finals. Although I wasn’t selected, the mentorship provided me with clarity in terms of the direction I wanted to take.

Through working for the government, I knew that I wanted to study public policy and administration. My passion for HIV work made me want to study public policy through a health and social justice lens. After researching schools and locations, I went to Cape Town on a volunteer project to see what the city was like and to check out the University.

This time was arguably the best five weeks of my life and I knew I wanted to return. It is a beautiful, diverse country with a degree of complexity that I can't begin to understand. I am fascinated with this place and find myself reflecting on myself and country of origin in the context of what I learn here. Cape Town also happens to be one of the most stunning cities I have ever seen with a fantastic University.

Cape Town 

I started saving vigorously and was accepted into the University of Cape Town to study public policy and administration. When my mentors recommended that I apply a third time to be an Ambassadorial Scholar, I had nothing to lose. This time, I was fortunate enough to get the scholarship and get placed at the University of Cape Town!

Since I had a year before the scholarship year started, I deferred by studies and moved to Malawi to volunteer for the year. While there, I became more passionate about issues of social justice, health and marginalization and even more excited about the Ambassadorial scholar program.

The Scholarship has a number of requirements that are completely in line with things that I love doing anyways. Scholars are required to (in addition to school, of course) visit Rotary Clubs and give presentations, get involved with community service projects, and share about their experiences when they return home. The idea is that scholars should serve as ‘Ambassadors of Goodwill’ from the Rotary Club, District and region that they are coming from. In my case, I’m coming from the Rotary Club of Ottawa, in District 7040 which includes parts of Canada and the United States.

At the risk of going on a tangent, I’m not a cultural minimalist. I’ve tried to be one, but ultimately I believe that circumstance, location and culture can oftentimes be factors that lead us to believe that we as human beings are separate from one another. In acknowledging this, I see immense value in programs offered by the Rotary Foundation to further intercultural understanding.  In her writings on her experience as an exchange student in Thailand, Karen Connelly says:

I’d like to believe – and I sometimes do – that every boundary between people can be crossed, that we are connected to each other by invisible bonds that override distance. My skin stretches over the earth.'

I think that programs such as the Ambassadorial Scholarship Program offered by the Rotary Foundation can and do build these bridges. Although not necessarily quantifiable, I believe that these bridges have immense value in our world.

After a year in Malawi and only a week into my studies, the program has already changed my life. 

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