The city of Cape Town reminded me a LOT of Austin, TX. At points along the freeway, I felt like we were in Southwest Austin, in the Westlake area, only Cape Town is far more green and lush. Our last day in Cape Town was very special because we had the chance to meet Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. More about his visit later.
During the day, I had no plans, and found myself with some colleagues on a trip to the University of Cape Town that was put together by the International Academic Programmes Office, thanks to Mr. Jonathan Mitchell who took time to show us the services/resources for international students at UCT. I have never experienced a more warm/welcoming visit to a college campus as I did on this trip. I was very humbled by the way in which international students are cared for at UCT, and I questioned whether we in the US offer the same dignity and care to international students in this way. We had a chance to visit the Student Orientation and Advocacy Centre (yes, the Orientation person in me was jumping up and down!), where we met Orientation Leaders gearing up for a new summer session, and the director of orientation, Ms. Joy Erasmus (who took the time to explain the entire structure of student affairs at UCT to us). UCT has a student population similar to my campus at OSU, but they have ten times the number of Orientation Leaders. That was not a typo- 250 leaders to welcome new students, with 20 students assigned to each student leader, and each leader assigned to different academic colleges. Just like the US, orientation leaders and the office are highly regarded and respected as entities that know everything about everything. I would really love to come back to UCT to do a self-directed professional internship in their Student Affairs and Center for Higher Education Management areas. I would also love to get a deeper understanding of how higher education is funded in South Africa- particularly UCT and other institutions.
In my casual conversations with people during our travels in South Africa, I noticed that many people came from Zimbabwe to Cape Town looking for opportunity- as the economy in Zimbabwe is not doing so well. Additionally, it was very clear to see the impact of the political and environmental climates of other African nations on each other. While I am not an environmental scholar, I feel that all issues ultimately connect to access to water. Water can grow food, without water there is famine and hunger, and sometimes desperation that turns to violence for the sake of survival. If we over consume or waste our precious resources like water, people disproportionately suffer in ways that are very dramatic. I also feel like I can see similar parallels in Asia with the Himalayan glaciers melting so quickly. I think I need to study water more deeply to understand my role in being a good steward of resources.
That evening on the ship, we had the great gift and opportunity to meet Desmond Tutu. He has sailed with Semester at Sea before, and is truly a blessed person. Aside from his inspiring message for us to stay strong as compassionate change agents (“You are awesome!”), I was most moved by his general sense of presence even more than his words. For someone with such a significant impact on South Africa, he had a lightness about him. His eyes were peaceful and mischievous, and his laughter infectious. In this I realized a major life lesson that I wanted to learn- doing the work with passion and detachment, and leaving the world a joyous spirit as my byproduct/precipitate. I feel like this is a chemistry-class reaction that makes a lot of sense, but is hard to do (which is how I felt in college when I sat in Organic Chemistry class). As part of the admin team, our family was able to join Archbishop Tutu in a small private reception, where he blessed us with his presence and joyful spirit.
I continue to carry the guilt of not making it to Robben Island- I just don’t feel like I learned enough about Nelson Mandela during this trip. So, I did the next best thing. I have purchased his book (Long Walk to Freedom), and will read this book to get a better understanding of his life through his lens. Given that apartheid formally ended only twenty-ish years ago, I am very impressed by the progress that has been made to heal by the many communities of South Africa. I think there is so much more work to be done, and by no means have wounds healed, but I do believe that dialogue is more present than in the United States. When I think that it has only been twenty years, I think we in the United States can learn from our sister South Africa about how to have the courageous and realistic conversations about race and racism. I know I need to come back here to learn more and give more, and I look forward to that day.