I can take this wheelchair up that mountain! Inclusive South Africa study-abroad trip changes lives
Shannon Kelly on three-week study-abroad tour to South Africa
October 9, 2013
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URBANA, Ill. – When University of Illinois sophomore Shannon Kelly learned about an inclusive study-abroad experience in South Africa, she hurried across campus to find out more about it. If tour leader Jan Brooks wasn’t fazed by Kelly’s wheelchair, Kelly knew she was up for the challenge.

“In my class on children with special needs, I emphasize the importance of full inclusion for people with disabilities,” said Brooks, a teaching associate in the U of I Department of Human and Community Development. “Over the years, I’ve had students who use wheelchairs who were interested in going, but I haven’t been able to say: Oh, South Africa will be great for you. Since the 2010 World Cup, things are better, but no law mandates accessibility.”

The airport and waterfront tourist area are accessible, and the boat for Robben Island is supposed to be accessible, “but someone had to pick up the wheelchairs because the boat with the best ramp was in dry dock for repairs. Our students with wheelchairs were so flexible and ready to immerse themselves in the experience, though; I have to give them credit,” she said.

Brooks fell in love with South Africa on her first trip on winter break 2007-08. Since then, she’s led at least one trip each year to share her passion and expose her students to life in this beautiful country with its ugly history of apartheid.

Students gain historical context for the trip in a pre-departure course. In the three-week trip, one week is devoted to tourism, two weeks to internships in the townships that match their interests or career tracks.

Kelly worked in a school for students with physical disabilities that mirrored her own. “The school was kindergarten through high school, and some students lived there. One child who could kind of walk would push another in a wheelchair. It was very different from special education here, and teachers had less education, but they used the resources that they had, and they really cared,” she said.

Interested in psychology and children’s and family issues, Ashley McDowell, who doesn’t use a wheelchair, worked in a woman’s shelter for domestic violence victims on the trip.

“Some days I worked with the women; other days I cared for the kids while their moms did skills training or worked. It was cool to see how the kids were developing in the crèche with the teacher while the moms worked to make a better life for their families,” said McDowell, a U of I junior in human development and family studies.

The cyclical nature of abuse was evident to her. “When a toy was taken away, you could see that the child’s go-to response was kicking and biting. In this new environment, kids weren’t hurt when they did something wrong. Instead their behavior was corrected,” she said.

The social worker told McDowell that she believed working with domestic violence victims is a calling.

“That’s probably the biggest lesson I learned—you can’t just say you want to do something, you have to have a heart for it, if you really want to affect people’s lives and learn from them—because if you don’t have that, you won’t be able to stick with it,” McDowell said.

Brooks is proud that the student placements have helped the travelers get internships and land jobs that make use of their South African experiences.

“In their interviews, they’re able to speak about living and working with people from other cultures. It makes them stand out in a very competitive process. I encourage all students to study abroad,” she said.

This year’s inclusive trip not only gave the students insight into life in the poverty-ravaged townships; students who weren’t in wheelchairs developed close bonds with those who were.

At day’s end, they would all talk about their daily assignments and process what they were seeing and doing.

“This was the first year that we stayed at a wheelchair-accessible backpacker’s hostel, and the students slept six to a room in three bunk beds. I saw this huge acceleration in relationships, friendships blossoming, and a willingness to collaborate and get things done,” Brooks said.

McDowell said that the inclusive aspect of the trip wasn’t the deciding factor for her in thinking about the trip, “but later I was really happy that we could all hang out together and discuss things. There wasn’t anywhere I could go that the girls with wheelchairs couldn’t,” she commented.

The bond between Kelly and McDowell was so strong that the two vacationed together in Michigan with Kelly’s family when they returned.

“I know we live on an inclusive campus, and students are exposed to all sorts of diversity, but on this trip, we were the outsiders, and we became a very cohesive group. The sort of relationships I might see develop over the course of a year or even four years on campus happened so quickly there,” Brooks said.

One day after breakfast, the group was given a tour of Khayalitsha township. “We had walked six blocks, and our leader still knew all her neighbors by name and could talk about what was going on in their lives. South Africans may have smaller houses and not as many things inside them, but they go outside and talk with their neighbors. They have close relationships with so many people. Instead of pitying them, we should learn from them,” McDowell said.

Back home, a chance hearing of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” stopped Kelly in her tracks as memories overwhelmed her. She remembered her South African students dancing and singing along to the song, and she quickly messaged another student who had made the trip. She said that she keeps in touch with South African friends on Facebook.

“I didn’t think it would change my life as much as it did. My mother said my whole face lights up when I talk about it, so obviously it was worth every penny,” she added.

Brooks said that study-abroad scholarships that cover part of the cost are available through the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and she is especially grateful for an Arlys Conrad grant that provided a graduate student to serve as a personal assistant when needed.