‘My experience abroad taught me a lot about myself, and the way I want to live’

Post by Aimee Patras, a junior studying nonprofit management in IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Patras traveled to South Africa this summer with Cru, an on-campus student ministry organization. 

When I was trying to decide how to spend this summer, I was overwhelmed with the number of options — study abroad, internships, working, service projects, going back to my hometown. I’ll be starting my junior year this fall and I knew I wanted to spend this summer serving in some capacity. It wasn’t until several doors were shut that it became clear as to what I should do.

aimee with kids

Aimee Patras, right, spent three weeks volunteering in South Africa working with high school students. Photo provided by Aimee Patras.

Through Cru, a student ministry organization on campus, I learned about a four-week service trip to Mamelodi, South Africa. I’ve been involved with Cru since my sister, an IU alum, connected me the first week of my freshman year. After months of raising support and preparing for the trip, I traveled with 21 other college students across the world to volunteer with an education initiative in South Africa.

Mamelodi is a township that was established in the 1950s as a black-only area during South Africa’s apartheid laws. The white-ruled government created a system in which black citizens of the nation were not treated like citizens; they weren’t even treated like people. Even though such legislation ended in 1994, the shadow of apartheid still covers much of the country and systematic oppression has disadvantaged millions of South Africans.

One consequence of South Africa’s racial inequality is the broken education system throughout the country, and especially in the townships. For most students in the townships, English is probably their second, third, fourth or even fifth language. However, after second grade, most schools are taught completely in English because it is the language of business and government in South Africa. Additionally, the quality of the schools is far less than ideal. One of the students I worked with this summer told me that his teacher just sleeps on the desk during class, and that he doesn’t learn anything when he goes to school.

The Mamelodi Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Mamelodi, was created to provide educational assistance to teens living in the township. My team partnered with this organization for three weeks to volunteer at their Winter Jam, a fifteen-day program during students’ winter break that aims to improve math, English, and life skills. The Mamelodi Initiative strives to come alongside the local change makers and to learn from and grow with the community. The entire partnership was focused on empowering the local volunteers to serve the township.

aimee patras

Patras poses with some of the students she worked with during her trip. Photo provided by Aimee Patras.

During the program, I, along with one American and two South African college students, led a classroom of 20 South African high school students through math and English lessons. Afterwards, we would eat lunch together as a class before splitting off for afternoon workshops — I helped with a Japanese Calligraphy workshop for the first half of the program and a Women’s Self Defense workshop for the second. Each day also included a morning and afternoon assembly to encourage the students and make sure they were having fun. My favorite part of the day was during lesson time when I would have the chance to work one-on-one with some of my students. It was during these moments that I got to form friendships with them and learn more about their life.

This summer challenged me to change the way I think about service to others. Rather than enter into a situation assuming I know how to fix whatever problem I see, I learned to come alongside the local volunteers, the ones who have lived in the community their whole life and know it far better than I do. It is silly for me to think that I know how to best serve South African high school students living in Mamelodi. However, by coming into the situation willing to learn from and grow with the local volunteers and administrators, I was able to use the resources I brought as an American college student to help provide for the community. I couldn’t do much to help anyone myself, but the partnership that I engaged with led to an improvement in over 200 high school students’ math and English skills.

My experience abroad taught me a lot about myself, and the way I want to live. As a SPEA student, it reaffirmed the coursework I chose to study. As a Bloomington resident, it encouraged me to use what I know and my place in the community to serve it best. As for my post-college career, it showed me that wherever I end up after IU, I want to be invested in that place and devote my occupation to seeing that community change for the better. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the summer, but I am so grateful for the experience I had.

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