Out of Minnesota and into the world: the semester I spent in South Africa

What can one do to prepare for an anticipated life-changing event? Last August, when I told friends and family about the semester I would spend at the African Leadership Academy through a program at the School For Ethics and Global Leadership, I was told repeatedly that, “this will be life-changing!” and that I would experience some of the best, and most challenging, moments of my life. We all have experiences throughout our lives that shape how we view the world and our place in it. But, when you are told an experience will change your life, it is hard to imagine exactly what that will look like.

When you are told an experience will change your life, it is hard to imagine exactly what that will look like.”

After arriving on campus in Johannesburg, South Africa, and completing a precautionary 36-hour quarantine, fifteen other American students and I entered the ALA community of just over 200 students from nearly every country in Africa. We were soon assigned to our dorm rooms and moved in with our new roommates. As SEGL students, we quickly adapted to living the day-to-day ALA life made up of long, but engaging, classes, mediocre school meals of almost exclusively chicken and rice, late-night microwave noodle creations, dance parties on the quad, group Uber Eats orders of KFC, 9:55 sharp curfews, debates on whether Ghanian or Nigerian Jollof rice was better, and late-night dorm conversations about neocolonialism with people we barely knew.

One of the most remarkable things about ALA is its diversity Students are from nearly every country in Africa and represent a wide variety of socioeconomic situations. ALA was the most remarkable example of a diverse student body I have ever encountered. In some cases, this resulted in conflict because diversity in location and economic standing goes hand in hand with diversity of political views, religion, and cultural norms. I encountered people who had vastly different opinions than I, yet there was an openness to this difference because of the diverse community.

Halfway through the semester, we took a week-long break from classes to participate in an all-campus activity called “seminal readings,” where our days were broken up into chunks of time dedicated to reading or small group discussion. We had many heated debates during this week. But, if someone disagreed with one viewpoint, they weren’t the only one who opposed, and they weren’t the only with whom someone else disagreed. This was a new experience for me because I was the minority as the only American and the only white person in my group. I felt more comfortable than ever before, easily engaging in conversations about race and racism, and the United States’ role in colonialism and neo-colonialism. I was surprised to find that many of my African peers said they had never experienced racism and wanted to better understand racism in the US.

ALA is a school that empowers African youth to become the continent’s future leaders, and it is also in South Africa, a country with a long, horrifying history of colonization and racism. We learned that extreme disparities between racial groups still exist in South Africa, as they do in the U.S. We also learned that many of the ways the country was, and still is, segregated are very similar to segregation in the US. In South Africa, the remnants of segregation are more visible because their legal desegregation was much more recent than in the U.S. Learning about South African history and Apartheid were integral parts of the SEGL at ALA program and included both book learning, class discussions, and weekend trips to museums and monuments where we could see this history first hand.

While the physical campus at ALA is very protected from the outside world, there is no way to truly protect students from the mental harm of conflict in the outside world. Some of my closest friends were Tigrayan Ethiopians. They were faced with the trauma of watching airstrikes in their home communities, not knowing if their families were safe due to internet outages that prevented communication. These friends had to watch as their fellow Tigrayans were being killed in a crisis that meets most of the stages of genocide. When I called home to talk to family and friends, many were hardly aware that this was happening.

It was hard for me to imagine re-entering the SPA community after this experience. I felt I would no longer be able to listen sympathetically to a friend complaining about getting a B on a math quiz after forming so many friendships with people who experience real-world problems, yet choose not to complain because they know it only makes the problems more real. One of the greatest things I learned was that I know so much less about the world than I ever realized. After this experience, I can confidently say that my life has changed. And, I am eager and ready to experience more of the world. I hope other SPA students will consider the opportunity of a lifetime at a SEGL at ALA semester away.