How service learning changed my college experience


        How Service Learning Changed My College Experience

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” -Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela statue overseeing city in South Africa

Seven thousand eight hundred and eighty-eight miles…That’s how far away from home I was when I traveled to South Africa the summer after my first year at West Chester University. It turns out, I have another home seven thousand eight hundred and eighty-eight miles away.

We all hear that in college you will become a part of something greater than yourself. And while that is true, I believe nothing would have made me feel that way more than going on a service learning trip abroad. Aid To South Africa is West Chester University Honors College’s philanthropic effort that holds an annual carnival style event and raises money for three beneficiaries in South Africa. The organizations consist of, Nkosi’s Haven AIDS Orphanage, H.E.L.P Ministries Soup Kitchen, and Mosaic, an organization focused on creating sustainable community centers in impoverished areas in South Africa. After observing and volunteering at these three organizations, I can confidently say I have become a part of something bigger than myself. Here is how service learning changed my college experience…

1. I got to see the world from a whole new perspective (literally)

Panoramic view of Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain

We can all define poverty and can probably recognize a time when we have seen, met, or heard about someone in poverty. I didn’t really know how severe poverty was until I traveled to South Africa. In the United States, most children who live in impoverished areas have somewhere to live, albeit not the Ritz Carlton, but nonetheless something over their heads. Impoverished children in America have the opportunity to attend public schools and receive basic education. Most children in America have shoes. That is not the case in South Africa. These children’s parents fight for them to go to school and scrape every penny together to buy a uniform, so they can attend. Majority of the students only show up to school for two reasons. One, to avoid being sucked into South Africa’s prevalent gang life and two, to receive their only meal of the day.

2. I met some of the happiest people I will ever meet in my life

School children smiling
Service Learning in South Africa

Nowadays, people have a funny way of defining happiness. “Funny” isn’t the right word to use, I think “sad” is more appropriate. When the material items are stripped away from someone’s life, all that remains is happiness. I believe that is the best way to live. The South Africans I met only know happiness. The children are still children who run, jump, and play. The adults are still adults, doing you know, adult things. However, there is a main difference between children and adults in the United States and in South Africa. Happiness. One word. A million meanings. I’m first to admit I complain about school, work, and over half a dozen other things on a daily basis. People in South Africa speak up about not having clean water, a sturdy house, or food to feed their families. There is a difference between complaining about luxuries and seeking necessities.

3. There’s a lot more to chopping vegetables than meets the eye

H.E.L.P Ministries Soup Kitchen
South African Community Center Soup Kitchen

We take going to the grocery store for granted. Need some cereal? Drive over to Giant. Need some produce? Hop over to Acme. Both of these food stores are located less than two miles away from campus. In South Africa, most families ration food for weeks on end. People are dying of starvation and malnutrition. Volunteering at H.E.L.P Ministries soup kitchen taught me that chopping hundreds of carrots, celery stalks, and onions doesn’t just give you a cramp in your wrist. It feeds hundreds of people their only meal of the day, it keeps hundreds of people alive, and it creates a sense of community. From that point forward, I can never chop vegetables without thinking about Reverend Cecil, founder of H.E.L.P Ministries, and all the hundred of people him and his hundreds of vegetables help every day.

I found my home away from home seven thousand eight hundred and eighty-eight miles away. This would not have been possible if it wasn’t for service learning. I returned home from the trip with three main takeaways: you don’t need an iPhone to communicate, an extravagant house to have a family, or a six-figure salary to be wealthy. You just need an open mind, a little bit of happiness and some vegetables. Service learning abroad changed my college experience, I hope you get the opportunity for it to change yours too. If you’re interested in studying abroad in any capacity check out this post about other  study abroad options at WCU!

Sunset over the pacific ocean in Cape Town, South Africa
South African Sunset