Reaching across cultures
Service overseas gives students a broad view of the world around them
By Elizabeth Czapski ('17)
When Jenna Severson walked down the streets of Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, South Africa, it was clear she wasn’t one of the locals. The community is exclusively black and largely impoverished, the result of years of apartheid that pushed people of color to the outskirts of the city. Residents immediately took notice of Severson, a white, American woman, and would yell things at her in isiXhosa, the predominant language in the area, as she walked by.
Severson’s desire to engage with the community lead her to learn some isiXhosa, so she would yell back. “It was fun to throw off that expectation of who people thought I was,” she says.
Severson, a senior double majoring in women’s and gender studies and English, traveled to Cape Town as part of the South Africa Service Learning Program in collaboration with Marquette University. She worked at Yabonga, an NGO that helps children and families affected by HIV/AIDS, where her duties involved everything from facilitating youth programs and workshops to visiting homes to gauge people’s concerns or help them fill out paperwork. In the process, she says she learned to adjust her expectations of what it means to serve.
“If you want to do service, you can’t go in expecting to make a difference. You have to go in expecting to learn,” Severson says.
She took that idea and ran with it, learning the names of everyone she worked with and making an effort to learn new words in isiXhosa daily.
Through a partnership with the University of the Western Cape, Loyola students have an opportunity to be immersed in South African culture. It is one of many destinations abroad—including Rome, Ho Chi Minh City, and Manila—where Loyola students can live the Jesuit mission through service.
The South Africa Service Learning Program requires courses on apartheid and local community development. Through those classes and conversations with fellow students, Severson was able to reflect more deeply on her own experience.
“We had intentional discussions all the time about race, about religion, about health care, about the economic situation in South Africa,” she says. It also helped her to appreciate the differences between the local culture and her own. “You have to really humble yourself and totally act and be there to serve what their needs are,” she says.
Hanna Munin, a senior advocacy and social change major, also found herself thinking differently about her own identity and worldview after participating in the service learning program in Cape Town. During her time there, Munin volunteered at a foster home twice a week.
Though she enjoyed taking engaged learning classes at Loyola, Munin says her study abroad experience gave her a new perspective. “To fully do a program somewhere else opens you up to creating connections between your culture and someone else’s,” she says. “And that was a really cool experience.”
Ceaira Walker chose a different continent for her service learning experience. The senior philosophy major worked at the Carmelite Clinic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she shadowed doctors and physical therapists as part of her semester.
Because most doctors and patients spoke only Vietnamese, Walker learned to find other ways to communicate. She says the experience helped her listen more fully to others and develop a stronger sense of empathy.
“I think empathy tends to be omitted from our daily busy lives because we’re all focused on one goal and forget to listen and understand each other because we’re so busy,” she says. “So for me, working at the clinic was extremely eye-opening because in the midst of all this chaos, somehow we all found time for each other and time to really connect with patients.”
Loyola study abroad advisor Annie Reagan says that the University is proud of its service learning programs because they provide cultural awareness and promote global advocacy.
“It really helps students understand their world and their local community a little bit more by comparing it to the world around them and their experiences abroad,” Reagan says. “That is at the heart of Jesuit education.”