Name: Alexandria Armeni
Type of Project: Study Abroad
Because of the STEP program I was able to spend two weeks volunteering at De Wildt Shingwedzi Cheetah and Wildlife Ranch in South Africa. The project I participated in was a pre-veterinary program through International Student Volunteers. My two weeks living and working on the ranch allowed me the opportunity to interact with amazing animals, assist in various veterinary produces, and expand on my knowledge of conservation.
It has always been a dream of mine to travel to Africa and as a pre-veterinary student with Veterinary school ambitions I have a keen interest in wildlife and conservation medicine. This program exceeded all expectations and allowed me to immerse myself in a life, culture and world wholly different to what I’ve known. I was nervous at first as this was something completely out of my comfort zone. I was worried about so many things from the food I would be eating to the 20 strangers I would be volunteering with. Looking back now, though, I realize all of my nerves and worries were for nothing, the 20 strangers because my family, the food was amazing, and I was more comfortable and at home on Shingwedzi then I had ever been before.
I completely fell in love with South Africa, and I treasured every single moment of my time there. I surprised myself by how quickly I adjusted and how much those two weeks changed me. My ISV project leader told us our first day there our time in South Africa would change us in so many ways, and at the time I didn’t believe her. She was right, though; I am in no way the same person I was when I left for Africa. I am more confident, more comfortable with myself, more willing to try new things, and more extroverted.
While participating in my STEP signature project I learned an African phrase, “UBUNTO,” which means you are who you are because of other people. I believe this phrase sums up my experience. Every single staff member at Shingwedzi was welcoming, and made us feel like we were an integral part to the ranch. All of the projects we did on the ranch from painting enclosures, to feeding made the trip feel successful. It made me feel accomplished and proud that I was able to contribute to the ranch and ultimately the continued survival of the cheetah.
One of the main reasons I changed and grew as a person as much as I did was because of my ISV project leader, and the Veterinarian leader. These two women were able to bring all of the volunteers out of our shells, make us feel comfortable and at home, and show us there was no need to feel intimidated or nervous. They made even the dullest of tasks interesting, and were always there to make you laugh or smile. While they were the leaders of the project, they also played the role of teacher expanding our knowledge through daily lectures. From my project leader I learned about South African culture and history and from the veterinarian that traveled with us I learned about wild dog hunting behaviors, big cat diseases and so much more. They were the center of group, our instructors, our leaders, but most importantly our friends.
This trip meant everything to me in terms of my professional goals and future plans. I have an interest in wildlife and conservation medicine and this program allowed me the opportunity to see if I would be interested in pursuing it in veterinary school. From doing annual exams on cheetahs to vaccinating wild dogs, this trip was a trip of a lifetime. I grew as a person, as a student, and as a future veterinarian. I can’t wait to return to Shingwedzi and spend more time with the cheetahs.