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Why Volunteering Was the Best Decision I Made Abroad

by Anna Stember
AIFS student volunteering with school aged children in South Africa

Between classes, meeting new people, and exploring your abroad country, it can be hard to find time to volunteer. There is so much to do and to see!

Luckily, with the LSCE (Learning Sustainability & Community Engagement) course here in South Africa, I was able to volunteer at a local primary school as a service learning portion of the course. This consisted of spending every Friday morning with kindergarten aged children at iKaya Primary in Kayamandi, a local township.

At iKaya, we were split into teaching groups of 3-4 international students who were tasked with coming up with weekly English lesson plans for the kiddos. Although we hoped that some of the simple English words stuck with the students, our goals were more focused around forming relationships with the community members. By getting to know the teacher and students of our classroom, we were able to feel connected to people outside of the Stellenbosch University bubble. It opened our eyes up to the realities of the diversity of communities that make up South Africa.

Let me set the Friday morning scene for you: we drive into iKaya, unload in the school parking lot, and walk through the gates into the concrete schoolyard. The kids are simultaneously arriving to school, and some of them began chanting “teacher, teacher!” as they run up to grab our hands. We enter our classroom, where we pass out name tags and start the day with a simple English song (think “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”). We usually do some sort of coloring activity, an outdoor activity, and a game. Interspersed throughout the morning is the struggle of attempting to communicate with the children without being able to speak the same language. Nonetheless, a student who knows that I will not understand Xhosa leans over and whispers a secret to me as if we have been lifelong friends.

Later, I watch as a 5 year-old girl tries to solve an issue between two of her friends. One is standing there crying, and the other gets all the details before she tracks down the perpetrator of the tears. I feel helpless; shouldn’t I be the one figuring out why the student is crying? Nonetheless, the problem-solving friend brings the two fighting students together, talks it out, and they are all playing together in a matter of minutes. Who needs a teacher to solve kindergarten tears?

I think that this volunteer experience was the highlight of my time abroad because it made me realize the simplicity of what it means to give time to others.

No matter your background, your language, your age, or the color of your skin, you can connect with others around you. At iKaya, we were able to do this through high fives, laughs, silly faces, and hugs.

These past couple months I’ve been asking myself questions: What exactly are we providing for these children at this school? Are we actually making a difference, coming into their classroom for a few hours every week? Am I doing enough? I still can’t confidently answer these questions. What I can say, though, is that I’m proud of the joy that I see shine from the kids’ faces on Friday mornings. There’s nothing like walking into that schoolyard and being tackled to the ground by so many tiny bodies that refuse to let you go.

All I can hope is that those 30 little kids in our classroom could feel our love shine back at them. And, when it comes down to it, that’s what matters. It’s not the planned lessons, or how well they seem to understand a few new English words. It’s how we made them feel. Hopefully, just an ounce of the love that they gave to us we were able to give right back to them.

This post was contributed by Anna Stember, who is spending her spring semester studying and volunteering abroad with AIFS in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Why Volunteering Abroad Was the Best Decision I Made in South Africa | AIFS Study Abroad | AIFS in Stellenbosch, South Africa
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