This past semester I studied abroad at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. At UCT I had the opportunity to volunteer with local high school students from underprivileged families. Before taking this volunteer position, my experience was strictly with the elderly (as I am a Gerontology minor) and pre-school age children from previous volunteer experiences. Working with underprivileged high school age students (whose parents had lived under apartheid) was going to a very different and challenging experience. I was both excited and nervous to be given the opportunity to share with and learn from these teenagers.
The organization I volunteered with, Shawco Education, seeks to improve the quality of life for individuals in developing communities of the Cape Metropolitan area. In the volunteer project that I chose to be a part of, “Tipping Point,” we would meet with high school students once a week and discuss current social issues. The purpose of our meetings was to raise awareness and find positive and alternative ways for the students to deal with the hardships in their everyday lives. As part of this project, I had to create a fun and safe environment in which to discuss sensitive issues such as rape, HIV/AIDS, bullying and violence. I needed to prepare my students with life-long skills and improve their access to furthering their education.
In the very beginning, I found it difficult to get through to the students. They had a hard time communicating and opening up about the topics chosen during our first lesson. They hinted to the fact that I did not understand where they were coming from because of my culture, race and class. I was a bit upset about the situation because I felt like I was being judged when I was trying my best. I talked with supervisor and asked for advice; after speaking with her I knew things could only get better. She explained that this scenario was a regular occurrence and that I needed to give the kids more time to get comfortable with me.
By the second week I came fully prepared to teach these through other methods, such as art. I found that I could get through to these teenagers by talking about art in its many forms. They began opening up to me as well as the group and shared their experiences as it pertained to our topic - art. After the second week, the students began to excitedly research different forms of art that they related to best to share with the group. Many students approached me after lessons were over and opened up to me about their hardships living at home and talked about the peer pressure they experienced with their friends. Through this experience, I saw my potential to be there emotionally for another person.
I had a very different experience working with the high school students and came to understand the individual needs of my students, relate to their unique personalities, understand their strengths and weaknesses and communicate effectively with them.
Volunteering with Shawco during my semester abroad was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. Through a grassroots student effort we were able to provide opportunities to the children who were previously out of reach, educate young people for life and equip the students with life-long skills.