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By Brielle Powers

As my study abroad program ended a little over two weeks ago and I am now back in the United States, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect upon my experience in Cape Town. I was lucky enough to volunteer with Teach Out for the majority of the semester and gained valuable insights that I hope to take with me back to DC. However, many of the questions I have asked myself regarding my experience have yet to be answered. One of them being, what does it mean to be doing service or volunteer work in a foreign country?

Especially in a country such as South Africa, where the consequences of colonization are still very prevalent, the topic of Western volunteerism is very controversial. While many volunteer programs are successful because they are run and managed by locals within the community they serve, there are an endless flow of volunteers from Western countries that spend just days or weeks at a service site only to leave the community waiting for the next group of volunteers. Therefore, when deciding where to volunteer I wanted to choose an organization that wasn’t temporary. Teach Out is not only a permanent volunteer organization but it is primarily comprised of South African students who are dedicated to improving public education in South Africa.

With this in mind, and after having lengthy discussions in class regarding colonialism and it’s modern day implications, I began tutoring with Teach Out with an open mind. The other American students on my program and I would often talk with each other about “White Saviorism” and what it meant for us as white, Western women volunteering in South Africa. So, in the past few weeks I’ve been reevaluating why I wanted to volunteer while abroad in the first place and whether or not I felt I was able to make a difference while there.

Service has been part of my everyday life since high school. As a member of Epsilon Sigma Alpha at GW, most of my weekends consist of helping out at food banks or with National Park Service. So to me, doing a service project while studying abroad was a given. However, the more I reflect on my time at Usasazo High School, in ways I have never done after serving in DC, I wonder if I had any right to be there. What were my intentions? Did I want to volunteer just to make myself feel good? Was it out of guilt for my own privilege?

I still don’t have a clear answer. While I would like to think my volunteer work was purely altruistic, any of these motivations could be true. And as far as whether or not I was able to make a difference by tutoring, I believe my experience allowed me to be a small part of a large influence on the student’s lives. The UCT students who make TeachOut successful and who dedicate time and effort to the Usasazo students will surely continue to make a lasting difference in their lives. And having been able to be just a small part of the bigger goal of improving education in South Africa assures me that the work we did made a difference.

I think the most valuable thing about my the service I did while abroad are these realizations. My study abroad experience would not have been the same without Teach Out. I am eternally grateful for all that it has taught me and the wonderful relationships I was able to form through the organization. And even though I may have learned much more than I was able to teach at Usasazo, I still believe it was meaningful. I now have the opportunity to take what I’ve learned back with me to GW so that I can be a better, more conscious, volunteer and do more meaningful service in DC.

By Brielle Powers

Though I may technically be the “tutor” on Saturday mornings at Usasazo High School, I have become a student in so many ways during my time in South Africa. Beyond my classes at UCT, in every interaction I have here I am constantly questioning, absorbing, wanting to learn more. I’ve come to realize that engaging with the community is not always about the service rendered but about the knowledge gained.

As a TeachOut tutor, I can’t help but think I’m learning so much more than I could possibly teach. In the past few sessions, we’ve worked on figurative language, debating, and poetry. Since I studied the same concepts at their age, I try my best to employ the same methods and tricks my previous teachers used to help me. But some of these efforts are to no avail as I continue to struggle to relate to the students. However, I think I am making some progress and the students are becoming more receptive to me.

On one Saturday, there was a miscommunication about whether or not there would be a tutoring session and we had only a few students in each class. This made the session less intimidating than the ones in the past and it was nice to be able to have one-on-one time with the students.

As the students were completing their worksheets and we had finished reviewing the elements of a sentence, one of the Grade eight students raised her hand. She said she didn’t understand the difference between a direct and indirect object. So logically I told her how I remembered the difference -- through a rap I learned in the seventh grade.

As I was signing “a direct object is a noun or pronoun that receives that action of an action verb,” I could tell she was starting to understand and she was able finished her worksheet without assistance. Some of the other students like the song and I was able to go around the classroom with ease, seeing where they needed clarification.

Another one of the TeachOut tutors has been tutoring English at Usasazo for almost two years now and helps guide me as to how to explain the concepts to the students. She handles the class so well and is extremely passionate about helping the students pass matriculation, which is South Africa’s version of the GED, a standardized test that students must pass in order to graduate high school. She has taught me a lot about the South African education system and about how programs like TeachOut are integral for public school students who don’t necessarily get the extra help they need in overcrowded and understaffed classrooms.

While I have been making small achievements towards connecting with the students, I’m eager to do more, to get to know them better, and to help them pass their exams. I find myself spending a lot of my time talking to the other tutors. While the students take practice quizzes, I ask them about their high schools and why they started tutoring at Usasazo. I think exchanges like this are what makes community engagement so impactful. Having the ability to talk through and compare and contrast experiences enable us to learn from each other. We are all teachers and students and should take on each role by being open to learning new things, eager to ask questions, and willing to share our own experiences.

By Brielle Powers

The first time I volunteered as a tutor with TeachOut, it was my first time going to a South African township. I should mention that the night before my first tutoring session, I had also just spent the night in Camps Bay, one of the nicest (and wealthiest) beachside neighborhoods in Cape Town. A girl on my program was celebrating her birthday so we all decided to rent an Airbnb for the occasion. Since the exchange rate is about 14 South African Rand to 1 U.S. Dollar, it seemed like a steal for us to be able to stay in a beachside mansion for a night.

I mention this because it was the first time I was confronted with the gross inequality in South Africa. Despite having just spent the night in a beautiful extravagantly furnished home (did I mention it had a full pool?...amid the water crisis...AND heat?...a true rarity in cool Cape Town winters), the next morning I was on a minibus to Khayelitsha, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

From what I had read before coming to Cape Town (and imagined from Trevor Noah’s accounts) I thought I had known what to expect entering a township. However, per usual, my expectations were off.

I pictured the townships as fenced-off, secluded communities away from the city. But as soon as I flew into Cape Town International and drove away from the airport, I realized this wasn’t true. In Cape Town, you can literally happen upon a township by taking a few wrong turns. There are fences (twenty year old remnants of apartheid) but they’re broken down, panels missing, giving the inquisitive passenger driving by a peek into a mini city.

There aren’t many of what an average American would call “homes” in the townships. They’re more like shacks, rectangular buildings held together by pieces of scrap metal and wood. Some with additional rooms added on, some stacked on top of others, some closed off with barbed wire fences. As we drive further in toward the school, we pass barber shops, food stands, braai (which is barbeque in Afrikaans) grills, and preschools. Goats and stray dogs mill around, digging through the trash on the side of the road.

Our tutoring sessions start early, around 9:00 am and despite it being Saturday, the streets in Khayelitsha are always busy with people milling around, kids running and chasing after each other, shop owners attending to their customers or rearranging their products. Once we get to the high school, we can usually see all the students in their uniforms hanging out before classes. My favorite thing about Khayelitsha is the strong sense of community you feel even just driving through it.

On the first day, I decided to tutor the English classes (as I haven’t taken a single math class since junior year of high school) and we split the students up into Grade 8 and Grade 9 sessions. Myself, along with another new tutor, took Grade 8 students first. When I walked into the classroom, I was first shocked by how many students were there. Though there were maybe only 10 or 15, it was crazy to me that high schoolers would willingly come to school on Saturday mornings just for extra math and English practice.

I remember once in high school when we had had too many snowdays and the superintendent was considering making us go to class on Saturdays to make up for the lost time. Everyone rebelled. Looking back, education is just another thing I’ve taken for granted my entire life, something I’ve seen as more of a chore or obligation rather than as an opportunity. Yet these students welcomed an extra chance to learn.

Our lesson plan for the day focused around sentence structure and identifying things like the subject, predicate, direct object, etc. Some of the kids seemed familiar with this already, so we took the opportunity to quiz them as a review. They were a little hesitant to participate at first, but I attributed that to typical high schoolers being “too cool” to be a teacher’s pet. However, it could also have been that they couldn’t really understand my accent when I asked a question.

One thing I’ve learned is that there is no one “South African accent.” In a country with over eleven official languages, a defined accent just doesn’t exist. However, most South Africans are taught British English and thus have very different pronunciations than Americans. To these students, who mainly speak isiXhosa at home and only learn English in school, my American accent was funny, something some of them only hear watching shows on TV. Although I enjoyed making them giggle and smirk, I instantly became aware of my foreignness, my whiteness, my alienation.

At this point, my biggest challenge as a tutor is making connections with the students. I think this stems primarily from language. It’s hard to feel like you are making a difference when you are not entirely sure the dozens of eyes looking up at you understand what you are saying. There are some tutors with TeachOut who live in Khayelitsha, who know isiXhosa, and who can show them that, yes, one day you too can go to one of the top universities in Africa. But for someone like me, who’s had a vastly different background, it’s difficult to find things in common.

In the next few tutoring sessions, I hope to work on this challenge a little bit more. By just putting in more effort to get to know the students better, to learn their names (and how to pronounce them correctly), and to learn where I can best help them academically I think I will have a much greater impact.

By Brielle Powers

Deciding where to study abroad was HARD. I knew this was my chance to finally to go overseas and leave the U.S. for the first time so I had high expectations. The thought of living in a foreign country for over four months was so exciting. A part of me got caught up in the possibilities of just earning stamps on my passport by going somewhere in Europe where I could travel every weekend. Having taken Spanish for seven years, the GW Madrid program was a logical choice. The opportunity to become comfortable in the language and experience the different cultures of various countries throughout Europe was appealing.

But another part of me, the part that always tells me to not do what everyone else is doing, said ‘Brielle, this is your chance to do something different.’ I thought of a seventh grade project where my teacher had us act as the heads of state of different countries. I represented South Africa and since then had read whole library sections of books on South Africa, wanting to learn everything I possibly could about its environment, culture, and politics. As a tribute to my younger self, I felt that moving to Cape Town would be a way of coming full circle.

However, my indecisiveness kicked in and I went back and forth between Spain and South Africa for months. It wasn’t until my mom surprisingly advocated that I go to South Africa that I was able to make a decision. Despite her concern over safety and distance from home, she knew it had always been a dream of mine to travel to Africa. Afterall, when else in my life would I have the opportunity to live there for four months?

So I applied to CIEE’s Arts and Sciences program in Cape Town, South Africa where I would be able study alongside South African students at the University of Cape Town (UCT). When searching for programs I knew I also wanted to be able to continue to do service. As a member of Epsilon Sigma Alpha, GW’s community service and leadership sorority, my weekends back in DC are usually spent serving at soup kitchens and elderly homes or picking up trash on the National Mall. I knew I wanted to make service and integral part of my abroad experience so I made sure CIEE had community engagement opportunities that I could participate in to better learn about the community I would be living in.

However, during orientation, a UCT student group presented a few opportunities for semester study abroad students to join community engagement projects. It was through them that I discovered Teach Out, a UCT student organization that travels to different schools in local townships almost every day of the week to tutor students.

Entirely student run, Teach Out operates as a non-profit and provides transportation for UCT students to the schools. Additionally, UCT students on the executive board of Teach Out create math and English worksheets and answer sheets for the tutors to provide for the students.

While Teach Out operates in different schools in different townships in Cape Town for all ages of students, every Saturday morning, I tutor Grade 8 and Grade 9 students in English at Usasazo High School in Khayelitsha. While I have already participated in a few tutoring sessions, I am excited to continue to build relationships with the students and fellow tutors throughout the semester.