One Parent’s Perspective on the South Africa Study Abroad Program

by Sharon Rice

It was a January morning as we sat on the floor of Heather's apartment, surrounded by two open suitcases, a wet swimsuit and towel, paperwork for her trip, other assorted articles of clothing that had been carefully packed in her suitcases four days earlier, and the remnants of a slumber party – sheets, pillows, blankets. And we were supposed to be meeting a bus to leave for her semester abroad in less than two hours.

Okay, that would have been manageable – except Heather continued getting calls, text messages and knocks on the door from friends stopping by to say good-bye. As her mom, I was starting to feel a little panicky.

I had arrived early so we would have time to go out to breakfast, look over her paperwork and talk about the little details that are so important before such a major trip – like when she would call me, how much cash she should have on hand, how she would need something warm to wear for her layover in London and something cool to wear for her arrival in South Africa.

Of course, we had talked about all these things the weekend before as we packed at home, before I took her back to college to see her roommates and friends four days before she was to leave for four months. But now, sitting on the floor in the middle of her scattered belongings, "details" didn't seem very important compared to getting her re-packed (wet swimsuit and all) in time to leave. It's no wonder we started snapping at each other.

Nevertheless, the irritation was short-lived and everything did end up getting packed – and we even had time for a 15-minute breakfast at McDonald's before heading over to catch the bus. We never did talk about when she should call me, though, which I later regretted when I didn't hear from her for a week.

How we got to this day . . .

The discussion about whether Heather should participate in the four-month South Africa study abroad program had begun months earlier. In fact, as early as her freshman year she had begun researching studying abroad in Italy.

The summer before her junior year, she worked at Hume Lake and continued researching the study abroad possibilities. That's when she began reading the APU website about South Africa. When she went back to school in the fall, she heard more about the program. But two short weeks after going back to APU, tragedy struck our family. Without warning, my husband (Heather's beloved dad) became suddenly ill and was placed in intensive care. Two short weeks later he went home to be with the Lord. Our family was shocked and shattered, Heather bereft.

In the weeks that followed, Heather was no longer certain about studying abroad. We are very close and she didn't feel like she should leave me in the midst of such overwhelming sorrow. But I never wavered in my desire for her to have that experience, so I encouraged her to apply.

Even after being accepted into the program, she was uncertain. She was no longer worried about leaving me; she was worried about whether anyone else she knew was going. Heather is one of those people who lives for adventure as long as it includes good friends. Within a few days she discovered she knew a couple of girls who were going and that sealed the deal.

As for me . . . I never had any doubt it was the right thing for her to do.

Communication . . .

If you are a parent looking into this program for your child, I know what you're thinking . . . "Get to the good stuff and tell me what my child is going to experience." I know, because I tried to read everything I could about the South Africa program. At that time, the program was in its first semester, so there wasn't much in the way of pictures or information from the kids.

Before getting into details, I'd like to make a recommendation. Figure out a method of communication that is going to work for you. We thought we had it all figured out. Heather and I both have Mac computers with built-in webcams so we figured we'd be talking on those all the time.

We ordered Skype so she could call home almost for free, or talk by computer for free. Just in case, her brother also bought her a Skype phone. If all else failed, Heather received a calling card before she left, so we knew she could use a land phone if she had to.

The reality was, when the group got to Cornerstone College in Cape Town, they found out the computer lab had few computers, a rather sketchy Internet connection and no wireless access. Heather couldn't get her Skype phone to work at all. We couldn't use our webcams. Getting on a computer for any amount of time was impossible. And her homestay family didn't even have a computer.

Furthermore, Heather had no clue she could use her phone card on her family's home phone and she was rarely near a pay phone. So we went for days without communicating. Finally, we worked out a system that she would write long letters in a Word document and just attach it to her e-mail. That way I finally got to start reading about all her amazing experiences. These also served as a written journal. This system changed when she got to Pietermaritzburg but it worked for Cape Town. I think buying phone cards in Cape Town would have also been a good idea, but, for some reason, Heather never did that.

Here's one more suggestion – well, two suggestions, but one didn't work for us. Heather's brother tried to set her up on a blog so she could post her pictures and stories there. That would have been the best solution. But she never did it. The other good thing is to get an account on Facebook. Not only does Heather post many of her own pictures there, but she gets "tagged" in some of the other kids' pictures and I get to look at those, too. It's pretty great.

The experience . . .

Now for the good stuff. I am amazed, amused, inspired and blessed by what Heather has experienced thus far. There is no way to do it justice, but I'm just going to start listing things randomly in somewhat chronological order.

On the layover in London a group of them took the Tube to Picadilly Circus and walked around for a couple of hours (it was cold). When they arrived in Johannesburg, they spent a night and two days taking historical tours (it was hot and humid).

Then they flew to Cape Town and went straight to Cornerstone College where they stayed a couple more days before meeting their homestay families. Heather and her roommate took an immediate liking to their family – an older couple whose married children and grandchildren lived in a smaller house behind their house.

Heather got really close to her "Oma" and "Opa" and their extended family and had a hard time leaving them at the end of the month. They did many family things together, went on outings and went to church. Heather got the impression most of the other kids didn't get as close to their families as she got to hers.

It was two weeks before I learned her family was "colored" (the designation for those who are a mixture of black and white) and only then because she mentioned going to church and she and her roommate being the only white people there. (By the way, much to Heather's amazement, everyone at church cheered when they learned she was from California!)

The house was tidy and Heather really liked the food. Her "Oma" did her laundry for her. The house was close enough to the college that the girls could walk to classes. They had a curfew and Heather learned to go to bed relatively early for a change.

They learned to use public transportation (trains and taxis) to get around, since the college is in a suburb about 20 minutes from the beach.

They had many wonderful tours and excursions with their classmates, but usually they did things in smaller groups. They climbed Table Mountain and Lion's Head (go to www.capetown-webcam.com to see these beautiful mountains towering above Cape Town), they visited the Cape of Good Hope and penguin-filled beaches; they went cage-diving with great white sharks (not), which was a huge disappointment to the Heather. I'm sure none of the kids from this semester would recommend it. And they toured several townships and saw where most black people live in abject poverty. For the most part, the kids had quite a bit of freedom to come and go and interact with the people living in Cape Town. I didn’t hear a lot about it from Heather, but apparently there were local college students who “mentored” them in the culture of South Africa.

After that, they began their trip north to Pietermaritzburg. I was surprised to hear what a nice trip this was since they got to stay in some great places and see some very cool stuff. They arrived at the African Enterprise conference center outside of Pietermaritzburg in driving rain.

I think this was the biggest surprise of the trip for me since I hadn't been able to see any pictures of it before Heather left. I imagined some primitive outpost on the outskirts of a game preserve; but this place is beautiful! Look up some pictures from this semester.

Once they got to this permanent destination, the kids were a little more confined and isolated from the bustling city life they were used to in Cape Town. The previous group had warned them of some of the problems of being cooped up together on the campus.

But I've heard nothing but wonderful things from Heather. We finally got a chance to use our webcams and I saw her room. It's adorable. Her big windows overlook a large grassy lawn, and she and her friends regularly hike into the game preserve where they've seen zebras and impalas and other non-threatening wildlife. There are also monkeys all over campus.

Today, a group of friends did a "canopy tour," which means they took "Indiana Jones" type safari trucks into the jungle and spent 2 1/2 hours doing zip-lines through the treetops. Heather says they sang Zulu songs while zipping through the trees and one of the guides fell in love with her and asked her to marry him.

Last weekend a large group of them stayed in a hostel in Durban over spring break and had some really interesting experiences, including attending a rather rowdy soccer game and going to the beach. Previously, they went to a rugby game in Durban.

Let's see, some of the other things Heather has talked about include a mini safari and class trips with her art class and conflict management communications class. One week her art class traveled some distance away and hiked through a beautiful valley and up a mountain to view some of the oldest cave art in the world.

Another week her conflict management class traveled to another scenic place to re-enact an actual battle between the English and Boers. Her classes have been held at museums, cafes, waterfalls and the college in town.

Most of all, Heather talks about her friends, the community of students who have lived and grown together in so many ways over the past three months.

Two more things. Heather now has wireless in her room but the Internet connection is still pretty lousy. We talk by AIM Instant Messaging in the afternoons when it's after midnight where she is. We could go on our webcams but they freeze up too much. She also calls me once a week on Skype and we talk for an hour for very little expense. If I had Skype it would be free but I don't want to have to sit at my computer to talk to her while I'm at work. I'm the one who should have kept the Skype phone.

The second thing is Heather got a pretty severe ear infection. The leader at AE took her to a doctor and she got medication. Heather says the doctor was very good and she got antibiotics and a few other things, but she hasn't followed her regimen like she's supposed to so it hasn't gone away completely. Anyway, I thought parents would want to know good medical care is near at hand. (By the way, the malaria pills were a waste of money. According to Heather, none of the kids have been taking them after the locals told them they weren’t necessary.)

This is only a brief summary of some of the things Heather has done. I hope reading this letter has given parents a better idea of what to expect. I have never worried for her safety. This is an awesome experience and I will always be grateful to APU for making it possible. Next week the kids begin their service projects. And that will mark a whole new chapter in the story.

For now, if anyone has questions or would like to see some of Heather's pictures, feel free to e-mail me at wildriceproductions@gmail.com.