Aug. 9-29, 2002
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Art conservation plays a key role

Students use research grants to examine University traditions and history
Father of chemical genetics to start new program here
Researchers identify gene involved in autoimmune disease
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Protecting endangered species
Actor Ethan Hawke share his artistic talents with U.Va.
Students study abroad in Africa
Students study abroad in Africa
U.Va. students in Africa
U.Va. students traveled to Southern Africa this summer to participate in a new study abroad course. Here, they posed at the Three Rondavels viewing site on the Blyde River Canyon in South Africa. It was a stop along their trip up the Great Escarpment of Southern Africa near the end of their time abroad.

By Fariss Samarrai

Erin-Marie Burke, a rising third-year African-American student, had never been abroad. This summer, she went to Africa for three weeks as a member of a new study abroad class offered by the Department of Environmental Sciences.

“I kept a journal of about 75 pages,” she said. “It’s all about what I did, how I felt. I’m the first person in my family to travel outside the country, and I’m thrilled that my first trip was to Africa.”

Burke is sharing this experience of a lifetime with her Richmond family.
“I talked to my 89-year-old grandfather about it. It blew his mind that I had actually gone to Africa and had seen and done so many things.”

Americans in ‘the real South Africa’

May 26 • One of my classmates thought I was being oversensitive when I expressed my ambivalence over photographing the children in Soweto, stating that “they don’t care.” … Their smiles hide a much deeper-felt pain like in that poem “We wear the masks.” … Black South Africans wear a mask. … My feelings were only strengthened by an encounter we had today. …As we were passing a cute baby on the road many of us stopped to take pictures. … He began to cry. … I felt bad for objectifying such a helpless child to my American curiosities. … That baby … gave me a glimpse into the soul of the real South Africa.

May 29 • The class was polarized as all the American students tried to solve a problem that has been plaguing South Africans for years – AIDS. … The professor kept coming down on Americans for trying to fix the problem when we didn’t really understand it. … They kept saying that Americans thought everything could be fixed. ... They looked upon our optimism with disdain. ... At that moment I was never prouder to be an American. … I love the “I can do anything” mentality of Americans. … I think South Africa needs a dose of American optimism and know-how.

June 5 • Steven and Eric, two University of Venda students, gave me some advice yesterday that I think will stay with me for the rest of my life. … They kept asking me questions and I kept prefacing my answers with “I guess” or “I think.” … Of course, I would answer right away. … Then Eric just stopped me and said, “You know sometimes you just need to give a concrete answer and it’s OK to think before you speak. You don’t have to answer so fast.” … I took their advice the rest of the day and I began to feel like I was in another country that in a lot of ways was more sophisticated than America.

— Journal excerpts from Erin-Marie Burke, a rising third-year African-American student

The course, “People, Culture and the Environment of Southern Africa,” is the irst U.Va. study abroad class to take students to Africa for a concentrated learning experience. It is part of the environmental sciences department’s ongoing research and education initiatives in that region. The University recently joined a consortium with four universities in southern Africa as a result of years of research collaboration there.

“The best mirror for looking at one’s own culture is to look at other cultures,” said Bob Swap, research assistant professor of environmental sciences.

“Visiting Africa definitely has helped me to look at America with new eyes,” Burke said. “I’m able to make comparisons regarding the problems of poverty, racism and gender inequity. The trip made me feel grateful that we have the type of government that we do in America where it’s possible to make change.”

Swap developed the four-credit course to help students understand how people and their cultures shape the environment of a region, and how the environment affects people and the development of culture. Swap has been conducting research in Africa for more than 10 years. He plans to lead the course again next year and to develop new ones.

The class included 15 people – Swap, two teaching assistants and 12 undergraduate students. All of the students are humanities majors, half of whom are African-Americans who were making their first trip to Africa. The trip began in urban areas, then moved into rural areas, eventually concluding at some of the most wild and beautiful natural areas in southern Africa, including Kruger National Park. The students were paired at times with students from the universities of the Witwatersrand and Venda in South Africa.

“We went into the cities and villages, allowing the students to meet the people, to ask questions and come to some understanding of the societies there,” Swap said. “We tried to show them the real Africa, beyond the typical tourist destinations.”

The students met with former African National Congress guerillas and visited the Apartheid Museum, an AIDS outreach center, a gold mine and the Cradle of Mankind, a world heritage site. In urban and rural areas, they saw the everyday difficulties people face of simply acquiring resources, such as women in a poor rural area of South Africa who spend the bulk of their day carrying water in jugs to their village from a distant river.

“The students got some understanding of the spiral of poverty, the differences between the haves and the have-nots, and how people can be forced to use their time simply to exist with little time left to try to improve their situation,” Swap said.

“They saw the true value of natural resources and infrastructure; the things we take for granted in the U.S. This led to a lot of soul-searching, a lot of late-night rap sessions. The trip shook to the root some of the students’ preconceptions about Africa and even our own country.”

Swap asked the students to keep a journal. “This trip was exciting, unconventional and moving, a trip they will never forget. I hope it helps them to become more humane, to have their human values shine through for the rest of their lives.”

Burke isn’t yet sure how she will use her journal, but she considers it a treasure. After she graduates from U.Va. she will spend a year or two teaching with the Teach for America program in Atlanta.

“I want to help the disadvantaged right here in America,” she said. “There’s no excuse for poverty here.”


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