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South Africa study abroad trip emotional, inspiring

Fifteen UNC students and faculty members landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, in late May to explore a country that has experienced significant change since transitioning from an apartheid regime to a nonracial democracy. Photo Gallery

The School of Social Work sponsored the two-week study abroad trip, which offered an emotional and educational journey through South Africa’s oppressive history with racial segregation and enabled participants to learn first-hand how the country’s current policies, governmental agencies and nonprofits are working today to respond to the needs of all South Africans.

“Part of the purpose of this trip is to look at the changes and the challenges being faced by South Africa and how they are dealing with those and to expose students to different cultures and approaches to social problems,” said School Clinical Instructor Dan Hudgins, who along with Gina Chowa, an assistant professor, and Sharon Holmes Thomas, director of recruitment, admissions and financial aid, helped lead the study abroad trip.

The summer program kicked off on May 23 with a two-day symposium at the University of Johannesburg, where social workers and economists from all over the world gathered to discuss social development issues affecting southern Africa. Chowa, who was invited to the event, helped arrange for the School’s students to attend the conference and record written summaries of the various sessions, which will be published in a later report, Hudgins said. During the symposium, students and faculty heard presentations that included discussions on the role of governments and nonprofits in southern Africa; the strategic challenges to administering microenterprises, and the lessons learned in addressing equity and poverty issues.

“Ultimately, I think our students walked away with a greater appreciation of the challenges that South Africa is facing and an understanding that we all have many similar challenges,” Hudgins said. “And while we don’t have all the answers, and they don’t have all the answers, we can still learn from each other.”

Participants also toured local agencies that serve some of the country’s neediest residents, including a school that serves young people with developmental disabilities and a program that supports families and children affected by HIV and AIDS. So many of South Africa’s children have lost parents to the AIDS epidemic and are now being raised by extended family, especially grandparents.

“Our students even had the chance to travel into the township of Soweto to visit some of these children and grandparents in their homes,” Hudgins said. “How to support those many, many relatives who end up raising children who are orphaned is an issue we both share. They are very committed to helping extended families.”

Students also left with a greater sense of the significance of South Africa’s history following tours of Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum and Constitutional Court, a historic landmark built on the site of a century-old prison complex that once housed criminal and political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s former president, and India’s Mohandas Gandhi. During the trip, students and faculty also had the chance to meet documentary filmmaker David Forbes and preview his film, “The Cradock Four,” which documents the 1985 abduction and brutal murder of four anti-apartheid activists. According to historians, the deaths created a national outcry that led to the end of apartheid.

For Tiffany Washington, one of the School’s doctoral students, the trip abroad was “inspiring.”

“I was inspired by the social workers for their passion to the field,” she said. “I was inspired by filmmaker David Forbes’ commitment to the truth in storytelling. Most of all, I was inspired by the incredible resilience of the people of South Africa.”

Based on the School’s continued interest in South Africa, Hudgins said there’s hope that the School will eventually form an official partnership with the University of Johannesburg. The School already has graduate student and faculty exchange programs with universities in India, Sweden and China.

“I think it’s important for this School to have an ongoing relationship with a university in South Africa because that’s the place we’ve visited most frequently,” he said, “and I think it has relative significance and parallels for folks in this country.”