Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
Five University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) students recently participated in the university’s first study abroad program in South Africa. The program, which will be offered in subsequent years, focused on South Africa’s history of youth empowerment.
Student participants included: Timyah Wellmaker, a junior math education major from Belleville, Illinois; Rickey Anderson, a senior business management major from Dumas, Arkansas; Jasmine Alford, a junior accounting major from Memphis, Tennessee; Kiana Wilson, a senior broadcast journalism major from Dermott, Arkansas; and Arion Rivers, a senior psychology major from Detroit, Michigan.
During the program, participants learned about the role of students and young people in the anti-apartheid movement that started in the early 1960s. Cultural tours included the Apartheid Museum and the Nelson Mandela House Museum, where they learned about Mandela’s early life, anti-apartheid activism, imprisonment and eventual rise to the presidency of South Africa.
At the museum, program participants were surprised to see a framed citation from UAPB, which was delivered to Mandela during his first visit to the U.S. in 1990, Dr. Pamela Moore, associate dean for global engagement, Office of International Programs at UAPB, said.
According to the 1990 citation, “The faculty, staff and students at [UAPB] take great pride and honor in recognizing the monumental achievements of Mr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela in the area of human rights and international relations … Be it resolved that his brothers and sisters at [UAPB] commend this great liberator and are pleased that he satisfied so much hunger for freedom and equality during his lifetime.”
Upon their return to Arkansas, several student participants mentioned how inspirational it was to see the UAPB citation, Dr. Moore said.
“The experience is an example of how we may inspire our students to appreciate the power of thinking and acting globally – beyond the limits of what may be perceived here in the Arkansas Delta,” she said.
During the program, students took part in service-learning activities in rural and urban communities. At the Jabulani Rehabilitation Centre, they met a group of disabled seniors who make a living selling handmade crafts.
“We learned how the center’s elderly residents manage to survive with no stable income,” Alford said. “They sell handmade crafts to buy the things they need. They also taught us how to make their crafts. It was a very humbling learning experience.”
The students also visited the Umbuyisa School of Arts and Culture, an afterschool community-based art center, where children in the area are taught basic artistic skills.
“The school provides services to kids who are growing up in unhealthy environments,” Wilson said. “The students showed us their garden and paintings, and they also taught us some of Soweto’s traditional childhood games.”
Anderson said the art school is located in a poverty-stricken shanty town that lacks running water and consistent access to electricity.
“My heart goes out to the students, who were all around 14 to 18 years old,” he said. “However, I will say they were making the best of their given situation. They had just built a computer lab where students could do their homework and access the internet. This school was not only a resource center for the students, but also a safe haven and retreat from their impoverished living conditions.”
Alford said interacting with locals was a highlight of the study abroad experience.
“The house ‘aunties’ at a bed and breakfast we stayed at were the first people to teach my group their language, IsiZulu,” she said. “They were so nice to us and encouraged us to keep trying to speak the language, even if we were not good at it.”
The students’ tour guides and taxi drivers were also memorable, Alford said. They tried to introduce the students to unfamiliar aspects of South African culture and customs through humor.
“My main takeaway from the people of South Africa is that everyone is family, and we should all make sure that we take care of one another,” she said. “The people are all about unity and empowerment. Their outlook on life is very inspirational.”
Wellmaker said she most enjoyed the food, culture and people of South Africa. She appreciated the acceptance and the friendliness of the South Africans she met.
Rivers found the South African people open and helpful. He liked learning about the language as well as local customs such as dancing and craft making. Though he never developed a taste for the local cuisine, most of his peers said they liked trying the local flavors.
“I also appreciated learning about apartheid – the segregation and discrimination on the grounds of race that existed in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s – because it opened my eyes about the suffering of black people around the world,” Wellmaker said.
Alford said she learned that the South African government turned different parties of the apartheid movement against each other to prevent change.
“The officials gave one party weapons and guns and encouraged them to kill off members of the other party,” she said. “This is so interesting to me because it disrupted the fight for change for years. The conflict did not end until Nelson Mandela was released from prison. It was then that the violence stopped, and all parties returned to peaceful protests for changing the apartheid laws.”
Wilson said she most enjoyed visiting Soweto. Forty-two years ago, the township was the site of the Soweto uprising, during which thousands of high school students marched and protested against the Afrikaans language policy in the educational system.
“Visiting Soweto opened my eyes to the fact that South Africa and the United States have a lot in common,” she said. “I learned that the people of both nations have been victims of police brutality, racial discrimination and segregation.”
Alford said she enjoyed touring Freedom Park in Pretoria, South Africa, which includes monuments and a museum dedicated to the country’s struggle for freedom. “This site was my favorite because it included all of South Africa’s history while honoring those who made sacrifices for change within the country,” she said. “It was a very informative and interactive experience.”
Rivers said highlights of the program included visits to the Nelson Mandela House Museum and a museum dedicated to Hector Pieterson, a South African schoolboy who was shot and killed during the Soweto uprising when police opened fire on protesting students.
All of the program participants said they recommend the study abroad program in South Africa to other UAPB students.
“It is a life-changing experience,” Alford said. “I was able to learn things that help me improve personally, professionally and academically. It is also a humbling experience to see how less fortunate and more fortunate individuals operate their lives in a completely different country.”
Wellmaker said she recommends the study abroad program in South Africa to other UAPB students because of the new knowledge and outlooks they can gain.
“The more places you travel and the more stories you hear, the more you understand about the world you live in and how it has been shaped to be the way it is today,” she said.