1. Hello. My name is Zach Smith. For my STEP Signature Project, I was provided the opportunity to fly all the way across the world to Cape Town, South Africa with the Buck-I-Serv program through The Ohio State University. While our team was there, we volunteered our service through a local cooperative called the Sakhulwazi Women’s Hub in the township of Philippi. Our duties included going to early childhood schools to help the teachers and engage the children, painting a new school in the area, as well as assisting at the women’s hub with agriculture and maintenance.
2. Going into the experience, I knew that my view of the world was going to be expanded significantly. From having never left the country to flying over twenty hours to the other side of the world, I was ready to take in every experience and truly push myself out of my comfort zone and immerse myself in a brand new culture. One aspect of the trip that really opened my eyes was the stark disparity between the bustling, cosmopolitan city of Cape Town and the underdeveloped, dilapidated townships that are only minutes outside of the city. This inequality is not unique to Africa; cities and ghettos are spread out across all of the United States, Ohio included. The stark contrast between classes in Africa has made me much more aware of my surroundings, as well as a sense of profound gratitude for the opportunities that I have been given in my life.
The heightened social awareness that I developed during my time in South Africa has also forced me to confront the guilt that I feel from all of the privileges I experience. Here in the United States, it seems that the privilege discussion is always boiled down to a white vs non-white and male vs female platform. But to only think of privilege in these terms is reductive. There are people living on less than one dollar a day. People with no roof over their head. People not knowing where their next meal is coming from. When I connected the dots and realized just how lucky I was, it hurt. It hurts to be consistently aware of all inequalities of the world while I am here enjoying all of the wonderful things I am fortunate enough to be blessed with. The guilt I feel could easily be reduced by turning a blind eye to inequality and living in my own perfect bubble where everything is great. But that is not how I want to live. The guilt I feel is a reminder that there is a lot of change that needs to take place in the world. I can either sit around a feel bad about it, or I can use the hand that I’ve been dealt to make the world a better place for others. I would choose the latter every single time.
3. While in Africa, there were many experiences that shaped my new world view and elevated my social awareness. Specifically, I remember our first day driving into the township of Philippi from Cape Town. Although it is only about a 25 minute drive, as soon as we left the city, the inequality was extremely pervasive. We met with the Sakhulwazi hub, and then rode by van to the preschools that we were going to volunteer with. When I stepped foot into the classroom, I was overwhelmed with emotion. The classroom had well over 50 children, and only two teachers to attend to them all. The room was much too small to comfortably fit everyone, and there was simply a lack of resources to effectively teach a class. Thinking back to when I was little and going to school for the first time, I cannot even imagine how different things would be for me had I not attended a well-established private school.
The kids themselves left a profound impact on me as well. Given our current political climate in the United States, I was feeling very pessimistic about the world prior to leaving for the trip. All I saw was negativity, hatred, and partisanship at every level of socialization, and I truly felt like there was little good left in the world. The second I started interacting with the children, those melancholy thoughts evaporated. The kids would run up to all of the participants and greet us, rubbing their thumb against ours like some sort of secret handshake. They would run around, laugh, play, scream, and overall were just so full of energy and happy. All of the kids reminded me of my younger siblings and cousins back home, and it was so refreshing and pure to see their innocence. It also made me irate that there are still people today who are racist, xenophobic, and overall hateful towards people and culture that they do not understand. With the internet and wide variety of technology available, there is simply no excuse to be ignorant and afraid of things that are different.
But to me, I think the most profound experience that I had while spending my time in Cape Town was listening to the stories of the men and women who volunteer their time at the Sakhulwazi cooperative. These men and women have next to nothing, yet they wake up every morning, travel to the Sakhulwazi, and find ways to give back to their own community and make it a better place for others. Some men and women shared deeply intimate stories about the hardships that they have faced and the inequalities they still experience. I also had to laugh at myself and my own “problems” because they do not even hold a candle to what some of these people have experienced. The sheer determination that these men and women possess is truly inspiring, and serve as a constant reminder that even when things seem difficult or that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, you can and must push through it. The culmination of all of these interactions catalyzed the transformational experience that I had.
4. The personal growth I’ve experienced and the broadening of my worldview as a result of this opportunity is something that I will be able to carry with me for the rest of my life. Currently, I am in the process of applying to medical school. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, and the profession allows me to utilize my skills and talents to help others in the most effective way that I can. This experience has only reaffirmed my commitment to others and making the world a better place. Ideally, after making my way through medical school, I want to work with Doctors Without Borders, supplying aid to the countries that need it the most. Though these areas are often remote and or dangerous, I am excited for the day I can finally give back in the capacity that I would like to.
Beyond reaffirming my own personal ambitions, my increased understanding and appreciation of the world and all its cultures is something that will help me better connect with others, as well as potential patients later in life. After coming back from South Africa, I find it much easier to place myself in others’ shoes and to critically think about big ideas from other perspectives than my own. I also have a new found appreciation of my culture as well as all those that I experienced on my trip. The world is a big, beautiful place with so much to see and experience if you are open to, and I am going to continue to keep my eyes and ears open to as much as I possibly can. Overall, I think that I’ve grown much more as a person as a result of this experience, and I am ready to challenge and engage the problems that I see within my community and others.