Students Gain Experience and Perspective Through Immersion in South Africa

This past summer, eleven Rutgers University students participated in the 14th Rutgers Graduate School of Education (GSE) South Africa Initiative (SAI) cultural immersion course taught by Dr. Darren Clarke,  GSE Senior Director Strategic Alliances & Outreach. 

The three-credit graduate hybrid course Education, Culture and Change encourages participants to challenge their beliefs and assumptions and develop critical thinking skills as part of their personal and professional competence. The course culminates with a two-week cultural-immersion program in South Africa, where students learn about the history and sociopolitical realities of South African communities, and engage with scholars, leaders, and learners through seminars and service-learning experiences in township schools and empowerment projects. 

“Each year, upon returning from South Africa, our students report gaining a deeper sense of diversity and cultural similarities,” said Clarke, co-founder of SAI. “We strive to help our students integrate their new cultural knowledge and skills into their current academic work and professional lives.”

The students spent the first week of the program in Johannesburg visiting the Apartheid and Hector Pieterson museums, Voortrekker Monument, and Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, which capture the complex historical narratives of South Africa. They also engaged in instructional and play activities with more than 100 learners at Teboho Trust empowerment project in Soweto, where they felt the cardinal South African spirit of Ubuntu, a Xhosa term meaning “people are people through other people.”

During the second week of the program, students attended academic seminars and dedicated their afternoons in service-learning programs with non-profit organizations in Bloemfontein township’s, under the Reach Our Community Foundation which provides support for orphans, children, and families through education. They also volunteered by cleaning and painting school classrooms and grounds, and engaged with the local students and volunteers through after-school activities.

This year, students were very fortunate to participate in the Global Leadership Summit sponsored by the University of the Free State. The students joined 200 international delegates and experts from 14 countries to address issues of race, gender, diversity, social justice, and reconciliation in higher education. Students had opportunities to build cross-racial community among students from other backgrounds through structured programs and support. 

Since its inception in 2001, SAI has fostered learning across continents by providing support for learners’ school books and supplies, funding over 2,000 South African learners in Gauteng and the Western Cape provinces, bringing renowned scholars to Rutgers to address timely and compelling issues in education and society, and facilitating bi-national research amongst U.S. and South African scholars that informs educational practice.

From challenges and revisions to forging partnerships, SAI has ultimately grown into a perspective-shifting endeavor that has provided life-changing experiences for U.S. participants and South Africans, whereby they also gain access to knowledge, support, and resources that are critical to their personal and professional lives.

Witness the reflections and educational experiences of the students from the 2015 trip shared via their blogs below:

Lesney Elgin

Patricia Taitt

Shy Yi

Jennifer Zahradnick


Students who are interested in applying for the 2016 course, which will run from July 15-July 30, 2016, are welcome to attend an information session on December 2, 2015.

Please visit the SAI webpageto learn more about the program.