Community Development in a Cape Town Classroom: Ekstein ’12 Discovers New Direction

By schwartzsa | November 29, 2011

By Sarah R. Schwartz ’10

Amanda Ekstein ’13, an International Business and Culture major, admits that most people think she’s a little crazy for choosing the three-year degree path. But at the end of three years, she will have a degree in hand, a wealth of experience from exploring three different international locations and the skills to take on the world. Recently returned from a summer term in Cape Town, South Africa, she’s working closely with her academic advisers to plot out the rest of her journey.

The accelerated program requires students to participate in an internship and a service-learning project, both within their major field of study. Ekstein chose Cape Town as her destination. There she tutored students in reading, mathematics, science and information technology in a program coordinated by Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO). The association, founded and governed by the students of the University of Cape Town, provides tutoring programs and mobile clinics in townships across the expanse of slums known as the Cape Flats. Ekstein returned from the experience with some newly discovered goals and more energy than ever before.

Teaching to Test the Water

“Though I’m an International Business and Culture major, I’ve always wanted to travel and explore diplomacy as well as non-governmental organization (NGO) work, so the Community Development program was something that I was really interested in,” she says. “In Cape Town, I gained first-hand experience, which allowed me to figure out whether or not I could handle this type of work.”

For most of the year, while the university is in session, SHAWCO functions through the volunteer efforts of full-time students at the University of Cape Town. However, when the university is on its winter break through the month of July, visiting international students, such as Ekstein, step in to keep the programs running. In a short time, they make a real impact on the lives of local youth.

“No amount of bookwork or theory learning could have made me take home the lesson of just how difficult it is to be in the development field,” she says. “We get instant gratification when we see a concept click with our learners and develop a rapport with them. You can feel in your bones that you’re doing something good. Then you watch them leave before it gets dark so they won’t get mugged, and you realize just how much more your learners have helped you than you’ve helped them. So I’ve learned that what I did with SHAWCO was important, and that there is still so much more to be done.”

In addition to class and service work, Ekstein was expected to produce a weekly essay reflecting upon the readings and events of the week. And she wrote a 20-page paper about learning and working in Cape Town for a culminating project. Though she admits this final task was intimidating challenge, as it would be for any rising sophomore, Ekstein found she was able to rise to the occasion.

Though Ekstein had a significant amount of coursework, she still was able to explore the culture and beauty of South Africa. On Saturdays Arcadia’s College of Global Studies organized day trips to South Africa’s natural destinations and historical monuments. In addition to a general tour of the city of Cape Town, destinations included Robin Island, The Cape of Good Hope, the District 6 Museum and Ekstein’s favorite, Table Mountain. “I don’t think I’ll ever see a more beautiful country—I am going to travel more to see if I can prove myself wrong, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Additionally, Ekstein and a group of friends took advantage of a free weekend to explore the Garden Route (Tsitsikamma, Knysna, Wilderness) National Park located on the Southern-most tip of the African continent. “South Africa sprawls. From Cape Town to Johannesburg, it’s a 20-hour drive,” she says. The group enjoyed everything from elephant rides to bungee jumping at the National Park.

However, in Cape Town safety is a concern, notes Ekstein. “They take very good care of us at Arcadia,” she says. “My house had four keys to enter and was secured with an electric fence, barbed wire, two gates, and we had a private driver everywhere. They gave us cell phones to make sure we were always in contact with people. They didn’t underemphasize the fact that you needed to take a lot of safety measures.” Students also lived with a South African student familiar with the area who accompanied them during tours of local sites.

A Reward Well-Deserved

Ekstein transferred to Arcadia with approximately 20 credits that she earned while attending high school in a dual enrollment course with Syracuse University. Having those extra credits in hand has been crucial as she pursues a minor in Political Science. Already overloading her class schedule, Ekstein figured that after participating in Arcadia’s First Year Study Abroad Experience (FYSAE) in London and summer semester in Cape Town, she wouldn’t be able to study abroad again—that is until her academic adviser, Dr. Wayne Morra, said, “I think you can go to Rome.”

So next spring she’ll be studying in the heart of Roman Culture at the Arcadia University Center for Italian Studies (AUCIS). To make it happen and ensure she graduates on time, Ekstein worked one-on-one with Morra as well as Dr. Jeff Shultz and Kate Bryant, Director of International Affairs, to schedule a combination of on-site and online courses.

Still unsure if she’s best suited for NGO work, Ekstein has set her sights on landing an internship with the Bureau of African Affairs this summer, to experience both ends of the spectrum.