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“How was South Africa?”

As I reflect on this spring quarter and even my first blog post, it’s becoming clear that this experience did indeed change me in lasting ways. But I’m realizing that many of the specific ways I learned and grew go beyond what I predicted. I’ll spare you the laundry list of details and share a few ways I both did and didn’t expect to grow.

Here is a shot of an African penguin sanctuary. One of infinite examples of natural beauty.

I expected this program to reinforce my passion for protecting people’s health (it absolutely did), but I didn’t realize that it would bolster my feeling of adamancy when it comes to protecting nature from climate change and human abuse. For that I owe the everyday experience of South Africa’s absolutely vibrant biodiversity (in both flora AND fauna!), excursions to natural reserves, an unending series of surprise hikes, and the truly beautiful experience in Kruger National Park and the Drs. David and Cleo’s wisdom and examples of environmental research and advocacy.

This is one of my favorite pieces from an art exhibit by and about South African women called Being Her(e) which we saw in an old apartheid-era jail in Johannesburg. The artist overlapped an image of herself with an old image of her mother.

While I anticipated I would become a stronger advocate for non-dominant races and ethnicities (you bet it did), I didn’t anticipate becoming so much more passionate about women’s rights and feminism during my time in South Africa. For that, I owe a lot of thanks to the wonderful women I shared this experience with and their fearlessness and unending support for each other, to Professor Guows’ example of both career and personal excellence all while fighting tirelessly for other women yet retaining her sense of humor, and to the many resilient and passionate South African women who often work the hardest and receive the least credit.

Here are most of the program participants after hiking Cape Town’s Lion’s Head Mountain on our penultimate weekend in South Africa.

Finally, I expected to make great friends on this program, but I couldn’t have anticipated how much I’ve improved for knowing them. Through example, they taught me to be a more fearlessly and actively supportive and encouraging friend, to be free and exuberant with compliments. Through their friendships they unknowingly encouraged me to speak up more, to be a better judge of when to take breaks, to be adventurous and spontaneous while taking care of myself and others, to articulate my thoughts to convey logic but not at the expense of feeling. I could go on for paragraphs, but I promised to spare you the tedious specifics.

When people ask me, “How was South Africa?” I say it was incredible. Beyond that, I don’t know where to start without taking up hours of their time; I haven’t yet found a way to reduce what feel like a year’s worth of experiences this spring to a short summary or sound byte, and I couldn’t feel more fortunate to be in that position.

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