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.