When our team of 14 Juniors and Seniors arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, we were greeted by surprisingly chilly weather, but soon the warmth of our welcome from the liaison at the African Leadership Academy, as well as eight of our new friends from the Chinese delegation to the Global Scholars Program, had us trucking ahead through the Johannesburg traffic. Along with 70 students from 15 countries, primarily from Sub-Saharan Africa, we were thrilled to get started on our three-week program learning about leadership, service, and international development. After greeting new friends from Lagos, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, and Harare, among many other places, and finding dorm rooms, students began their journey of discovering how a committed group of young leaders can change the world.
Our program began with a camping trip to Kloofwaters, a remote area on the Highveld Plateau, near the mile-high city of Johannesburg. Students and faculty got to know each other through challenges and games that illuminated the principles of the leadership program. All of us enjoyed hiking to beautiful green ravines in the arid landscape and rappelling down cliffs overlooking the grassland and savannah.
At the African Leadership Academy campus, a year-round college preparatory school that hosts the Global Scholars Program during their winter, students attended classes lead by teachers from all over the African continent. Each student joined a “house” during the program: Tana, Zambezi, Congo or Volta. Houses were charged with learning about the needs of one organization in Soweto, the most well-known of the townships in the region where non-white African citizens were forcibly relocated during the Apartheid era from 1948-1994. During our stay, the region was celebrating the 23rd anniversary of the end of the Apartheid legal system and a new election that was electrifying the nation.
Students interviewed community members and those at the Soweto organizations and began designing ways to help each organization address its most pressing needs. Each house used entrepreneurial leadership techniques, focusing on innovation and prototyping, to develop solutions to propose to their community partners, which included a home for children with multiple disabilities, a daycare center, and two different organizations focused on youth and the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Between class meetings and leadership training, students traveled around Johannesburg to visit historic sites such as the Apartheid Museum, the homes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in Soweto, downtown Johannesburg, and the World Heritage Site, the Cradle of Humankind. At the Cradle of Humankind students were able to tour an enormous limestone cave that housed important early human fossils. Students went to Lion Park, peering over their safari vans and seeing African mammals up close, including giraffe, white lions, cheetahs, and hyenas. In addition to their service learning and work, students attended dances, went out to dinner, played soccer with new friends, and competed in the House Olympics, an afternoon of silly games and contests.
The program ended in an impressive “Ideas Festival” where students presented a final project suggestion for their community organization to a team of community leaders who evaluated their ideas and “pitch.” Student project recommendations included: a low-cost play space for children with multiple disabilities who are being cared for by volunteers; a new garden plan, window farm, and nutrition lesson unit for students affected by the AIDS/HIV crisis; and a neighborhood festival that would include local entrepreneurs to promote a soccer-based AIDS/HIV education center looking for more neighborhood participation. Members of the GCS team won awards for compassion, diversity and group presentation.