Reflection on my South African TSiBA Internship

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2nd internship reflection

By Griffin Lerner, African History major, with a minor in Entrepreneurship and Education at the University of North Carolina
Student Intern at TSiBA CT, August - December 2013

As my internship and time in Cape Town come to an end, it is only natural to reflect on my time here; upon reflecting it quickly became eminently clear to me that these four months are a period in my life that I will treasure deeply forever.  I can only hope that every college student finds themselves an experience as meaningful as what Cape Town has been and will forever be to me.

My time at TSiBA has been invaluable to me in regards to my own personal growth in understanding education and South Africa.  While I did not tutor as much as I would’ve liked to, my varied role at TSiBA allowed to me to experience numerous levels of work experience in an educational facility,  and I leave with a much deeper understanding of all the cogs of a tertiary institute and how those cogs both complement and occasionally interfere with one another.  While not every single experience at TSiBA was wholly positive, the lessons learned from the negative experiences merely served to increase my awareness to the issues that plague the education system and NGOs in South Africa.
I was fortunate enough to intern at TSiBA during an important time in the school’s history. TSiBA’s 10th anniversary is coming up in June, and I helped to design the marketing campaign for the 10th anniversary, with consideration given to TSiBA’s goals and aims going forward.  One important transition is TSiBA’s upcoming move from full tuition scholarships for every student to a sliding scale of payment depending on ability to pay.  I remember that the first thing I knew about TSiBA was its full tuition scholarships for every student, and my idea of TSiBA was somewhat defined by that fact.  I believe that TSiBA aims to fight this notion by implementing a sliding scale system of payment.  In a way, offering a free education to every student only serves to reinforce the narrative of African NGOs acting as charities for helpless Africans.  A college that is free can seem illegitimate the quality of its education, and TSiBA feared that this idea of illegitimacy or charity could weaken its brand.  No education is free, students and staff put in endless hours of their time to make the most out of a TSiBA education.  In addition, TSiBA ran at a fairly large deficit in 2012 and those sorts of losses would ultimately make TSiBA unsustainable.  So, in order to both move towards a more traditional college brand and make TSiBA more profitable, students will begin paying a monthly tuition to TSiBA that is dependent on each student’s ability to pay.  On average, TSiBA will cost R220 per month for the average student, which certainly looks more payable when compared to the $25,000 in tuition that UNC charges out of state students.  What surprised me more than anything, however, is how receptive the students were to paying tuition to TSiBA despite their limited means.  TSiBA students have consistently impressed me with their gratefulness to TSiBA for the opportunities it has presented them with, and those opportunities are worth a change to a monthly tuition to most students.

Much more than brand marketing and business structures, TSiBA is defined by its incredible students who are some of the inspirational young people I have ever known.  What’s so incredible about TSiBA is that everyone has a story – life experiences that have been a complete pleasure to learn and be a part of at TSiBA.  TSiBA students are the definition of overachievers. The vast majority of TSiBA students are the only students from their class to attend college, and many underwent significant challenges on their way to tertiary studies.  One student I became quite close with was born and raised in Nyanga.  His mother passed away when he was eight years old and his father has been in prison for the last nineteen years.  Yet, despite all this, this student finished at the top of his class in high school and is now about to graduate TSiBA with a business degree at 21.  I attended his Xhosa initiation ceremony this past weekend, and his family and friends were immensely proud to see him finish his studies at TSiBA.  It is stories and people like this that make working at TSiBA such an incredible honor.

The resolve and ability of the students at TSiBA is a main factor that makes my internship at TSiBA unique when compared to many of the other UNC internships.  While many UNC internships involve work with South Africans from townships, these South Africans are often in positions of powerlessness in many internships.  From burn victims at Red Cross to developmentally disabled children at the Vera school, I fear that interactions with South Africans from townships at some internships can foster a sense of pity for these people and their unfortunate circumstances.  There is nothing to pity at TSiBA; despite coming from challenging situations, these students do not need anyone’s sympathy or pity when striving for success. Many students I work with have a much firmer grasp on management principles and economics than I do, and numerous students have started their own successful businesses, not to mention that statistically there is a higher likelihood that they will have a job after graduation than I will.  I admire and respect these students as opposed to pitying them, and there is no sense at TSiBA that the students are charity cases in any way, shape, or form.

Finally, I cannot neglect the skills that I have developed as a result of working at TSiBA.  Tutoring different students in a wide variety of subjects has forced me to remain fluid in my teaching style and act responsively towards the students’ individual needs.  At times I felt myself grasping at straws for a more relatable way to convey the information, but when I did figure it out, the feeling was extremely meaningful.  At one point, a student told me that I was “sent from God to help TSiBA students with their studies.”  While I cannot recall ever being told by God of my purpose at TSiBA, it was nonetheless heartwarming to receive such a positive response from a student.  My stated goal at TSiBA in my first paper was “to leave the school and students better off, if even marginally, than when I arrived,” and I believe in that regard I have succeeded, if even simply through repeated positive interactions with students.  I seriously doubt that I changed anyone’s life while at TSiBA, and I know well that my legacy at TSiBA will ultimately be short-lived.  I did, however, develop meaningful relationships with students and staff, contributed to their well-being and developed significantly as both an educator and a learner, and I am more than content with that.

As my days have become numbered in Cape Town, I have been frequently faced with an existential sadness about the beauty that surrounds me.  I become increasingly aware of the impermanence of my very happiness and find myself nostalgic for something that I haven’t even lost yet.  Walking home from Green Point, the sun shined brightly as a warm wind fluctuated between whipping and calm.  Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Signal Hill were all in my immediate view and I was just overwhelmed with a sense of happiness unlike anything I’ve experienced in Chapel Hill.  The physical beauty of Cape Town is absolutely breathtaking, and there are moments where I can do nothing but stare in awe at the world around me.  It is these moments of happiness that give way to a sense of longing for what will soon be gone as the transient nature of the moment becomes clearer and clearer as the program gets closer to its end date.  Despite my wishes, there in a definite expiration date on my time here.  The sadness that comes with any happy moments is only natural, given that that I understand that the things that induce this happiness are fading away quickly from my life.  There is no proper solution to this premature sense of nostalgia, but I have resolved to appreciate that sense of sadness as well.  Only something profoundly meaningful to me could produce such a feeling, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have had an experience so positive that the idea of leaving is such a depressing one.

Cape Town offers an experience that is profoundly unique and one that I couldn’t imagine having elsewhere.  My past weekend serves as a microcosm for the opportunities presented by this wonderful city.  In the last 72 hours, I sunbathed on the beach, had a lengthy discussion with a Zimbabwean artist about his craft, went to and participated in a Xhosa initiation ceremony, saw an elementary school classmate at a bar on Long Street, went to a beer festival, hiked Signal Hill to watch the Noon Gun, and observed a call to prayer from inside a Mosque in Bo-Kaap.  I am swallowed by cultural experiences in Cape Town, with such a distinct blend of ethnicities, cultures, and languages coming together in one of the most beautiful cities on earth.  Many experiences that Cape Town has offered me have not been easy – I’ve seen a dead body in the middle of the road and a TSiBA diagnosed with HIV – but they have all been intensely meaningful to my understanding of both myself and the world’s people.  The reflection period has been enormously helpful to my appreciation of Cape Town as well as my personal growth, as I believe that hearing the stories of other peoples’ experiences force me to more closely examine my own and sift meaning from the trivialities of everyday life.  In a city as layered in deep issues as Cape Town, taking a designated time to reflect on these issues is not just important, but imperative to getting the most meaningful experience possible here.  It would be overzealous of me to claim that I carry the lessons from reflection throughout every minute of my life, buy there undoubtedly moments during reflection where I feel a sense of clarity and understanding that completely engulfs and enriches my life experience in that instant.  This brief flame lights up my life in that moment, and I am undeterred by the ephemeral nature of these moments of illuminating clarity.  I prefer to bask in the fading light than focus on the looming darkness, and reflection has served to cement this approach for me.

While the program has only twelve days left, that means it has 288 hours, 17,280 minutes, and 1,036,800 moments left on the program.  I already understand extremely well how powerful just a single moment can be in Cape Town, and in even twelve days I still have more than a million opportunities to experience profound moments.  Life is but a compilation of meaningful moments, and Cape Town has provided more of them than any other place I have ever been.  I am forever grateful for my experience in Cape Town, and I will carry these moments with me for the rest of my life.

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