South Africa Semester Celebrates 10 Years

by Cynndie Hoff

When Jesus entered foreign lands, ate with outsiders, and conversed with the elite, He modeled the way all believers should approach the Great Commission—through relationships. Following His lead, Azusa Pacific students travel to about 40 countries through academic and service opportunities—study away semesters, faculty-led academic trips, student action teams, and outreach trips—immersing themselves in different cultures and communities to build relationships with and learn from God’s people throughout the Kingdom. This fall, the South Africa Semester celebrates 10 years of building relational bridges between people and cultures.

The university will commemorate the decade of difference making at a celebration event in Upper Turner Campus Center on August 27, 2017, at 4 p.m. All past participants, friends, and supporters of the South Africa Semester are invited to reconnect with old friends, share stories over a meal, hear from current leaders, and worship and celebrate together.

The idea for the program emerged from the provost’s Academic Vision 2022. A primary area of focus—intentional internationalization—integrates an intercultural dimension into the university’s teaching, research, and service functions through innovative global learning opportunities. When Matt Browning, M.Ed. ’93, Ed.D., stepped up as associate vice president for internationalization in July 2006, his first undertaking was clear. “President Wallace wanted to establish an APU campus in South Africa,” said Browning, who drew upon the knowledge and skills of a broader APU team to make it happen.

After a year of planning, traveling, hiring faculty, ironing out details, and cutting through red tape, it happened. “By the grace of God, we sent our inaugural cohort of 15 students to Cape Town in August 2007,” said Browning. Those first few students pioneered the way for all those who have followed by approaching the experience with humility, love, and an eagerness to learn. This semester, like all APU study away options, costs about the same as a semester on campus, accepts financial aid, includes airfare, and offers courses that count toward graduation requirements. But the experience offers much more than that. “Our presence there is a way for students to immerse themselves in a different culture and learn how to view the world through other lenses,” said Browning.

Since that maiden trip, the program has expanded significantly. While the first students lived in the dormitory of a small school, today’s students work and learn in APU-owned facilities in two locations: Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg. To date, more than 1,100 students have participated, each returning with amazing stories of personal transformation. Some roll up their sleeves and help local farmers till soil and plant gardens. Others work side by side with young students in afterschool programs. “Studying abroad in South Africa was a defining experience in my life,” said Erin Ganley ’16. “Living and working with people from a culture so different than mine taught me to find the commonalities between us while also embracing our differences. It also allowed me to understand my place in the world and revealed my desire to help people, leading me to pursue a career in social work.”

Students in the program’s nursing track, established in 2008, run clinics to help care for the communities’ medical needs. “As a nursing student at APU, my semester in South Africa was an adventurous and spiritually invigorating experience,” said Gabe Bernardo ’14, RN. “My skills and intuition as a nurse would not be what they are today if not for my experiences there. The relationships, knowledge, and memories from that time now benefit the patients I take care of every day in Los Angeles.”

In the decade ahead, the South Africa Semester leadership team hopes to add more major-specific tracks and expand the community development programs (APU currently partners with six regional organizations). Programs like the South Africa Semester enrich the higher education experience by instilling the cultural competence required in an increasingly smaller, flatter world. But more important, it fosters spiritual maturity in Christian students serious about understanding their global responsibility as scholars and disciples.

Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer living in Walnut, California.