UFS Diaries of Change

More than 60 of the 116 University of the Free State (UFS) students I’m accompanying on their trip to the United States have either never been overseas before or never flown on an airplane.

Students cheered when the plane launched into the Johannesburg sky on Thursday and clapped and whistled when we landed at our Dubai stopover and then in New York—our destination.

“I’m keeping the little toothbrush to show my mom,” said one student when the Emirates air hostesses handed out complimentary cosmetics bags.

The students are the second cohort to be selected for UFS’s new Leadership for Change programme, introduced last year on the back of the notorious Reitz residence video. In the first stage of the programme, first-year students from all the university’s campuses are chosen to visit selected universities in the US, Europe and Japan.

The group will be divided into smaller units of between six and 12 students comprising a mix of races, genders and study fields. Over the next two weeks, they’ll visit various US universities to expose them to different cultures, lifestyles and beliefs.

The second stage of the Leadership for Change programme will kick in next year, when the students—then in their second year of study at UFS—will mentor newly arrived first-year students, develop leadership programmes for them and run volunteer programmes on campus.

At the group’s send-off two weeks ago, UFS vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen told them: “Do not come back alone. Do not come back the same.”

He continued: “Come back with friends, bring students back here. We would have wasted a whole lot of money if you leave with prejudice and come back with prejudice. Come back as a different set of people.”

On our arrival in New York, there were gasps of excitement and shouts of “there’s Dunkin Donuts, there’s Hooters” as the transfer buses took us from the airport to the group’s first port of call—the Pennsylvania Hotel, a stone’s throw from Times Square.

On Sunday the group split up to head to their respective universities.

Victoria John is accompanying the students to the US as a guest of the university.

While in the US, the students will share with the Mail & Guardian Online their impressions of the universities that host them and the places they visit.

  • Thursday, September 22: Cebelihle Mtshali

    The day that we left the UFS was the most exciting and fantastic day for us all, but especially for those who are going to the US for the first time. The flight was really scary but we didn’t pay too much attention to it because all we were thinking about was getting to New York.

  • Friday, September 23: Vusumzi Mesatywa

    After two long flights adding up to about 20 hours we arrived at the JFK airport in New York. After a number of nerve-wrecking security checks we finally got on to the buses to go to Pennsylvania Hotel, which is opposite Madison Square Garden.

    I was quite disappointed in the sightseeing during the ride because of the gloomy weather. My spirits were lifted though when I got to see Martin Luther King Junior’s high school and the Julliard School of Arts during our walk around this evening. On our walk back to the hotel, while being soaked with rain, we had a short, exciting experience of Times Square and it finally sunk in that we were in the Concrete Jungle. Day 1 of the beginning of a life-changing two weeks.

  • Friday, September 23: Joshua Müller

    Flying is officially a horror after spending most of the past two days with your knees by your ears. I think anyone would be unimpressed. However, it is worth the experience. I am the first of my family to be so far from South Africa. I’m don’t know what to expect and I’m starting to get nervous but I’m still excited.

    My awesome experience of the day was arriving in Dubai. I got to see one of the highest buildings in the world but only from the airport window. It was insanely hot in Dubai. At about 5am the temperature was already 31 degrees. We are still four hours from New York. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us.

  • Saturday, September 24: Luzelké Breytenbach

    The first days in New York have been filled with excitement, life lessons and the forming of new friendships. Today I really began learning how to challenge my way of thinking through listening to the speakers at the orientation ceremony. Walking through the streets of New York I realised why it is called the Concrete Jungle.

  • Saturday, September 24: Lani van Heerden

    It has been an amazing experience so far and I’m surprised at the diverse range of people in New York. We learned a lot in our orientation session today and I’m really looking forward to spending time at New York University—to learn from them and to be someone they learn from.

  • Sunday, September 25: Lethukuthula Ndlovu

    Yesterday was an amazing experience—great risks were taken and I was so excited I thought my life would end. Tired as hell I stayed awake the whole night bonding with my fellow leaders and discussing issues that affect us. I “clicked” with strangers and spent the whole day with them getting lost almost all of the time! I slept for an hour then got up to get ready to leave the hotel today. I’m super-exhausted with swollen legs, ankles and feet. Through it all I enjoyed it very much. What an awesome experience!

  • Monday, September 26: Cecile Boshoff

    Boone in North Carolina is definitely the most beautiful place ever seen (besides South Africa). We were welcomed with open arms yesterday but our eyes kept drifting back to the amazing scenery and surroundings—forest upon forest, in green, orange, red and yellow. It is absolutely indescribable.

    Then you drive through the town with its amazing red brick buildings all around you and you find yourself mesmerised by the campus of Appalachian State University. We were treated to guided tours around campus and were constantly amazed by the university—state of the art library facilities and recreational centres. We were introduced to departments and social groups, arousing much curiosity and questions among us UFS students.

    We very excitedly experienced our first cafeteria meal, and we sat and spoke about how this experience has influenced us in just a matter of days. Also as a group, we have become very close friends. It is obvious that this is changing our lives in a way that cannot be measured! Thank you, UFS!

  • Monday, September 26: Christopher Rawson

    Today was the first day we actually got into our work. We finally have a chance as a small group to discuss certain issues with students of our age group in New York. Visiting the Business of Sport School was a different experience, for example, we had to go through a security point at the entrance of the school manned by police.

    It was good to get a chance to talk to some of the students and learn about how bigger schools are being made into smaller schools to give students a more one-on-one relationship with their teachers. The classroom set-up, which many schools employ, is casual to promote open discussion. The teacher is merely a guide to the development of the students who have the responsibility to prosper of their own accord. A discussion session about leadership and race and a fun icebreaker activity with Carlos Beato led to the end of a very productive morning.

    We did a quick run-through of the programme for the rest of the week and it seems that things are slowly but surely moving into place. The emphasis is now on our minds instead of the distance our feet have travelled. At the end of the day we are all crammed in the kitchen of the youth hostel fighting for WiFi to sort out some administrative issues. The excitement is rising as tomorrow we will be with the student hosts from New York University (NYU) who have been assigned to us.

  • Monday, September 26: Jacques-Robin Steyn

    Today was an absolutely brilliant day—the first we actually got involved with students and from schools in New York. I am very excited about tomorrow’s activities. We are scheduled to have a tour of NYU and learn about its history and infrastructure—and so to get an idea of how the institution came to be one of the most renowned universities in the world.

    Afterwards we’re going to have our first class on leadership, diversity and related ideas and discussions. This is the part that I personally have been looking forward to—sharing ideas, opinions, beliefs, outlooks and experiences on these matters. There is so much work that can be done regarding this and I personally crave the understanding and the knowledge that is to be gained this week.

    It is a privilege being on the programme, and I am more grateful every day. Still, I am looking forward to going home, but for now, I can manage being busy. Busy is good.

  • Monday, September 26: Alex de Gouvveia

    This morning we officially started our programme with a visit to the Business of Sport School—this is what we would call a high school in South Africa. We took part in discussions about race and leadership with students at the school, which was really something I enjoyed. It showed me that no matter where we are in this world, everybody at the end shares similar experiences. It was great to discuss these topics with the students because I feel that you learn a lot more this way.

    Today we also visited NYU for the first time and the hustle and bustle on that side of New York is amazing! We are all very excited to attend classes tomorrow and spend the day with our host students.

  • Tuesday, September 27: Eddie de Wet

    Today was an early one for all of us as we started a cultural class on Arab-Americans at 8am. Everybody kind of struggled to find their way with the public transport.

    We had a tremendous introduction and welcome to the class as the US students were informed about Nelson Mandela and the hero he is to all South Africans—we were proud to be related to a man standing for what he believed in.

    We got to learn a lot about this American race and how they are normally stereotyped, even though they are the creators of so many things, such as medicine and agriculture. They all have American identities but back home are true to Muslim cultures. We were shown a video about Fordson High school—a non-religious school but very proud of their culture making them proudly Arab, Muslim and American.

    We were inspired by the fact that they celebrate their culture and differences rather than only tolerating them. In conclusion we learnt that one event can change the dynamics of a country, reflecting back on 9/11 and all the different effects it had.

    We then went on a tour of the George Bush Library and Museum, which was an amazing experience, so much personal information and in-depth situations in which the US found itself previously—making us realise that it’s not only South Africa that has issues to resolve!

    Another class on social-justice issues, set aside especially for us, followed where we had a chance to interact with the US students in a more informal way, having a type of Q&A, learning more about things we are interested to know and exchanging tips and advice for further development.

    In the strong group we have, we learn through this experience not to take over conversations, to talk sense and to be extremely representative. In Texas, in comparison to New York City, diversity is not as great and they tend to be stuck in the past only tolerating diversity concerning sexual orientation especially and it was said that they don’t change their values but rather behaviour towards diversity as a whole.

  • Tuesday, September 27: Lehan Bloemhoff

    Got lost on campus on our way to an American diversity class! Found the class after some help by a friendly University of Massachusetts student. We discussed a great book by a social activist, Howard Zinn. We made a thread through to apartheid and what it has in common with slavery in the US. Great class. At 7pm we had a great lecture about identities—the different personalities and social backgrounds. I exchanged my thoughts with a Cameroon-American person. We differ so much!

  • Wednesday, September 28: Antoinette Offerman

    Today we had the morning to attend classes with our hosts. It was so good to see that the level of learning is similar to UFS and that the way of teaching is very similar too.

    We also attended a postgrad and grad bazaar, along with one on study abroad, which opened my eyes to the countless opportunities available to students. I had many conversations as everyone loves the accent and wants to know so much about South Africa.

    In one conversation that particularly interested me I was asked to comment on the film District 9 and give my interpretation was of it. I was excited that a South African film had reached various people but that the undercurrent of the apartheid theme had not been missed, and I was happy to give my views, saying I’d been emotionally touched by the film.

    It was also brought to my attention while talking to the ladies from the University of Missouri (for medicine) that the media plays an big role in the developments of misconceptions of places and that opinions and ideas based on what the media shows are mainly obscure and incorrect.

    We had a wonderful chat and after about 45 minutes I was given an email address and a few books to read. Once I’ve done the reading they looked forward to hearing from me and maybe getting a few of their students involved with our medical students to compare what we learned.

  • Wednesday, September 28: Vusumzi Mesatywa

    Today we went to a number of workshops and conferences. Some of them involved team-building and some were just like public lectures. I realised that in South Africa, the nature of our freedom of speech is different to that in the US in that we use it more aggressively and more openly. Debate in SA is highly encouraged and well-facilitated in my opinion whereas in the US the media seems to be much more influential in people’s opinions and beliefs. I believe this plays a large role in the misinformation of the public and public opinion and perhaps both countries do have things to learn from each other.

  • Thursday, September 29: Cecile Boshoff

    We have attended three classes so far and engaged with Arizona State University students in classroom situations—very exciting for us. We are very active in the classes and enjoy that a lot. The contrast for some of us is sad—the classes here engage amazingly but at UFS it’s more like one-way lectures.

    Yesterday we volunteered at the “1000-Pint Blood Drive” and experienced a mass community service project. It was an eye-opener. Everything was on a large scale and gave us ideas for implementing at UFS—we’d like to attempt a mass blood drive on our campus as well. We could get Checkers and food places to sponsor the event and have really nice food and maybe T-shirts to offer the donors afterwards. This would motivate many to donate. It is something we want to work on when we get back.

    I arranged that my team attended a football practice and the university treated us to a tour of the top facilities they offer. We watched some great films and they explained how the game works. Some of the group members even got gloves from the players, which was a definite highlight of their day!

    The university has state-of-the-art facilities that left us in awe. They have free writing-assistance facilities; also free tutoring facilities and many computer labs. They have free computer-fixing facilities. They have a bus facility for students that’s free as well—you just hop on and hop off as it pleases you.

    There are blue lights all over campus—28 altogether. These lights shine at night and if you feel unsafe at any time you press the button and the police will be there within 90 seconds. There are three workout facilities on campus.

    The whole university is environmentally friendly and even the toilets save water. You push the handle up when you flush for liquid waste and down for solid waste. Wow!

    Our groups have been working together very well. We’ve had only had one incident when a group member had an emotional situation but that was sorted out. As a group leader I think the one thing we should work on is being more on time. Our discussions are so interesting that we sometimes go over the time because of all the questions and excitement.

    Our group members are growing so much: it is beautiful to see them climbing out of their shells and interacting like they haven’t before - for instance, how the talkative ones stand back for the others, and how everyone is maturing.

  • Friday, September 30: Moses Mohokare

    Today I attended a sexual studies lecture that focused on same-sex relationships from the 19th century to the early 20th century. It was really interesting to learn that sexual relationships between two men were not thought of being deviant and that the language of the time didn’t classify people in the ways we now know. Being taken through the evolution of same-sex relationships, which included a look at how places of public entertainment created spaces for people to have and encourage sexual contact, made me wish we had sexual studies at our university.

    Also I got to participate in a discussion on race. In this we were asked to think back to our earliest memories of understanding, noticing and being aware of race. That gave me an opportunity to reflect on how I learnt about racial differences and from whom. It was really hard tracking the moment when I started being aware of racial differences and it became evident to me that it was only at high school that I became aware of racial differences—because we were constantly being told about the matter.

    I was puzzled that scientists had used medical research to try and prove how racial differences originated from biology and how that sort of satisfied the social-construction need to classify people into groups.

  • Friday, September 30: Eddie De Wet

    A complete tour day very early in the morning to the Houston livestock show and rodeo. The event raised much money and gave people of all ages fun for hours, riding horses, sheep or bulls. A tour through the Reliant stadium was a highlight where we got to learn some of the true Texas culture!

    Galveston, at the seaside, was our next stop—it’s the other campus of Texas A&M University. Very friendly people received us and took us on a tour through school, and hostels, played some basketball and led us to a discussion session.

  • Saturday, October 1: Marnette Brewis

    Team Holy Cross had a visit to Boston today. We’re enjoying embarking on a discovery of the liberation of the human race throughout history. We are learning to come to a place of not only accommodating but also accepting each other.

    What a profound experience so far! Holy Cross has been an experience that we will carry with us as we embrace a multicultural South Africa as the leaders of tomorrow.

    “Freedom is not merely throwing off one’s own chains, but living in a way that enhances the freedom of others.”—Nelson Mandela.

  • Sunday, October 2: Luzelke Breytenbach

    We went to visit the Church of the Village in New York and I appreciated the way we were welcomed. It’s important to welcome all people deliberately, this church teaches. I enjoyed the day there—even though some of the church’s traditions made me feel uncomfortable.

  • Sunday, October 2: Mookho Moliko

    The thing that really amazed me at the Church of the Village visit was that the church accepts LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer] people because at my church they think that’s evil.

    The other difference is how they pray: at my church we shout and cry while praying, no prayers are followed in a set order and everybody just shouts out their own feelings or prayers.

  • Monday, October 3: Eddie de Wet

    Our first class—about community development—brought some clarity to things we’d heard before on our trip and had wondered about.

    Then a meeting was called, which was frustrating because time is running out and some of us wanted to visit the mall to buy presents. But we split into groups and made it back in time for the next class—another interactive session.

    A time for daily reflection was next but a singing cadet corps invited us to a performance and it was mind-blowing. We all had goose bumps when they started singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and it made us feel extremely proud. The corps said they visited South Africa in 2010 and loved it!

    A class on community respect class taught us some things we didn’t know about ourselves. With students who’d themselves only started university recently, we spoke about interacting with other first-years.

    A dinner at Cathryn Clement’s home together with the Freshman Leadership Experience group ended the day. We felt motivated by it, and had some good laughs with these other “future leaders” - of the US.

    By now many of us were experiencing various issues - irritations, frustrations or feelings of being left out. In tomorrow’s reflection period we’ll attend to these issues.

    Some of our issues concerned language usage, respect towards one another and the group directors at Texas A&M University. We found people tend to not to listen when spoken to as a group; and we experienced a lot of digging up of our past. But we’ll address these conflicts and ensure that we leave a legacy.

  • Tuesday, October 4: Lehan Bloemhoff

    Had a great session with the Everywoman’s Centre, which offers support for women of colour. Their members shared shocking stories concerning race discrimination and violence. It changed my whole perception that the US doesn’t have major racism problems.

    During a debriefing, the UFS female students were emotional. I also found my heart bleeding for the victims. At 4pm we met with the Chapstone class. They support the Holyoke community schools by helping them with computer and IT-related problems. We shared common ground on our goals and their goals. It was a very interesting day!

  • Wednesday, October 5: Marnette Brewis

    Team Holy Cross feels proudly South African today! Our host university presented us with a South African dinner—with koeksisters and melktert. What a lovely experience! As we approach the end of our journey, we sadly take leave of our friends at the College of the Holy Cross—but with a new vision to be the pioneers of change in SA.

    Our group is now functioning optimally - we needed to come to a place of accepting one another as individuals and that this is a learning experience for us all.

    Treat people as though they are what they ought to be, and you will help them become what they are capable of becoming. May this be our vision.

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John


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