Study abroad isn’t really the right description of the global project program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. There isn’t any studying, and many of the programs are not near universities. One of the major reasons I chose the university was because it was the only engineering program I found that actually encouraged students to spend a term abroad. And instead of taking classes, students worked with communities around the globe to solve problems using their engineering skills. I had friends who worked with rural communities in Thailand, Namibia or Morocco, or at renowned museums in London. I applied for a program in Cape Town that was just finishing its first year as a project center, working with NGOs, businesses and the government to improve life in informal settlements outside the city.
I had no idea what I was in for, and (cliche) the trip really was life changing. Or at least perspective changing. It was my first time out of the country, and I was very far from home. The natural beauty of the mountains and the beaches was breathtaking. Going on a safari and seeing lions eating an impala in the wild was surreal. Living in a hostel with 20 other students (with two professors across the street) was a party and a lesson in living in close quarters. And a lesson in living with bedbugs. I conquered (or at least tried to) my fear of heights by bungy jumping off the highest bridge you can.
Working with people who lived in a kind of poverty I had only read about was difficult and eye opening. I was in a group that conducted an informal census of the settlement, since the government didn’t have accurate data about the residents which made it difficult to allocate resources. We hired bilingual members of the community to be our co researchers and they took us from door to door (and occasionally to bars and churches) collecting information about the population, employment, commutes, toilets and resources. Our “field office” where we held community planning meetings was a community center/soup kitchen/daycare run by an NGO. In the end, our office and a lot of what we had worked for was burned down by individuals who were jealous that the volunteer work was taking place in this community and not theirs. We were able to turn over data and ideas from the community about what should be done to private ventures, NGOs and sectors of the Cape Town government. I learned a lot though, about working through cultural and language barriers, and it was a unique experience I was lucky to have.
Saying the trip was all work and no play would not be true. Cape Town has incredible night life, and the American dollar goes far. Not all of those adventures are blog appropriate however! The beaches were gorgeous, there was no shortage of wine, and the clubs were open till 4.
I don’t know if it was the wild beauty of Africa, or the realization that I could travel anywhere that got under my skin during those months, but something did. The trip gave me a thirst for natural beauty and new places, and opened my eyes to the world.
I kept a blog during that time, and it can be found here!