Monday, November 21, 2011

My Year as a Rotary Scholar, In Review

My time as a Rotary Scholar is winding down, much faster than I ever imagined.  Luckily, I will be returning to Cape Town in January but in a way it is still the end of many things. For example, when I return i'm no longer an official rotary scholar, though  I will stay as involved as I can.  Also, most of my friends will be moving on as well so I will be starting over in many ways when I return.  Therefore,  I am stuck between this weird feeling of closure and excitement for returning home and then starting fresh when I return to the Cape in January.  I would like to focus on some highlights of recent events and people i've found to be inspiring during my time here.

Firstly, I've been working with my old spanish teacher at Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Atlanta, GA (my old high school) to form a sister school (a long term relationship with a yearly exchange) with a school here in Cape Town.  I struggled the first few months to find a school willing to spend the time on this, but things fell in to place in July thanks to a Rotary connection.  For the last 5 months or so i've been working with the interact club at Groote Schuur High School in Rondebosch.  The students in the club are extremely bright students, mostly women, from Eastern Cape, Cape Town, Namibia, and other areas of South Africa.  I've had a great time getting to interact with him, giving them access to the blog they use to communicate with students in Atlanta, and scheduling a skype session for them to all interact.  Finally on Monday we had our first Skype session!  I was worried because you never can tell with the internet here, it is barely fast enough to have a decent conversation on skype on a good day let alone handle video for 30 minutes.  But, everything fell into place and we had a great conversation.  It is difficult to explain the positive and exciting vibe that took place.  The students were all so enthralled with each other, and you could see that the young women here took pride in their cultures.  This is often complicated here because of the political history surrounding race and different cultures.  In addition, I think the students were surprised to see how much they had in common.  Another highlight of this conversation was seeing the young girls react to seeing an American boy! They equally delighted to hear that he was in fact an American football player!  Also, it was great to see how impressed the students in Atlanta were to hear the students speaking in Xhosa (one of the 11 official languages here, involving 3 different types of clicks). All in all I think they had a good time and were able to find similarities and differences in their lifestyles and cultures.  These students here only know about American culture from TV and it is nice for them to get to find new pathways of communication with students in America.  Below is a picture of the interact club communicating with the students in Atlanta.  I am hoping that this is just the beginning of many more skype sessions to come! I can see the positive effect it has had already and i'm happy to have been a part of the initial stages.

I've also spent the last month doing research for my thesis.  Again my thesis is looking at how different government departments and levels of leadership interact surrounding flooding issues in informal settlements.  I'm looking at a case study of an informal settlement in a detention pond.  Recently i've interviewed community leaders, and representatives from different city government departments as well as a representative from the disaster risk management department.  I also was able to help my professor and some colleagues with a workshop for various government representatives about risk response.  It has been a good opportunity for me to learn how various government departments function and collaborate around issues of risk and flooding. (pictured below). From my research i've also been able to get multiple perspectives about the various complexities of managing informal settlements.  Working with city representatives and researching in the informal settlement of Graveyard Pond has definitely been a highlight of my time here.  It has also helped me figure out what I might want to do next when I have finished my degree.

One story i'd also like to share is about a women who works on the corner of the street I live on selling the "big Issue".  The Big Issue is a magazine that employs vendors from disadvantaged areas (mostly townships).  I pass Cynthia often as I walk to the bus and we always exchanged casual friendly greetings. Recently I decided to stop and ask more about her.  We talked for a while and it turns out she is in her 40s, is raising children, working at the big issue and has managed to get training in over 10 different areas of social work.  She has certificates from workshops on sexual abuse, drug abuse, leadership, etc.  She informed me that she has been working to get a bursary for the University of the Western Cape so she can study social work next year and get a degree.  Because of her situation growing up whatever it may have been, she never graduated so she even worked hard recently to matriculate (graduate) and get a high school certificate.  Unfortunately she was denied bursary because of her low scores.  It is a tough balance here, well anywhere really when it comes to race, poverty, and education.  But, Cynthia's efforts to get a degree and become a social worker so that she can move out of Khayelisha (one of the larger townships in Cape Town) and make a bigger impact is inspiring to see.

So, as I sit and reflect on my time here I feel as though my work is not done.  I would like to formalize this sister school relationship if possible, continue exploring my research question, and hopefully get some experience doing some teaching next semester.  I am hoping to work with another student to form a society where science departments send students into high need schools (mostly township and informal settlement areas) to do science education.  This is a gap that definitely needs to be filled and I think it would be mutually beneficial to have different UCT students in schools getting kids excited about science. I would also like to help University of Cape Town formalize service learning a bit more through this society if it goes well.  I am not sure what the next step will be for me, but i'd like to finish the work i've started here and then see where opportunities take me.  All in all i'm grateful to Rotary International for sending me here to Cape Town and I look forward to returning after a few weeks home in the U.S.