For many young people, a semester abroad is their first opportunity to truly discover a new culture and way of life ('Greek' university culture doesn't count). I can't honestly remember what exactly drew me to Durban, South Africa for the first semester of my junior year. Surf had something to do with it, but I also liked that I already knew the language (English, in the Natal region) and that the exchange rate was favorable to the dollar (I was perpetually broke).
The ability to converse freely definitely made my experience richer, but in the end, my lasting memories had little to do with surfing. Within days of arrival, I had my eyes opened to a world in a way that nothing short of travel can provide, and the lessons I took with me have helped guide my path forward and my career, even 12 years later.
As the world's eyes turn to South Africa to remember the country's (and the world's) hero of freedom and equality, Nelson Mandela, I'm also looking back on my experience and reflecting on what I learned.
1. If You Are Lucky Enough to Be Reading This on a Computer, You are Luckier than a Lot of People
I came into my South Africa experience feeling well-traveled. My father was in the Navy, so we lived in Italy during my high school years, and I saw much of Europe, including fairly serious poverty in places like Slovakia and rural Italy. None of that can prepare you for Africa. The dichotomy of a flashy shopping mall surrounded by hills filled with plywood shacks will humble anyone. My first view of true squalor gave me a new desire to help others in my daily life, and helped me to count my blessings every day.
2. The World is Small
When I was a child, my family sponsored a boy in Kenya named Makau. Although we called him our brother in Africa, I didn't really think he was my brother. He was a long way away, I'd never met him, and he looked a lot different than me. Arriving in Durban, I moved into a dorm where all of my friends were South Africans, many of whom had benefited from sponsorship programs as children that helped them get to college. We liked the same music and laughed at the same jokes. I realized for the first time that we're all the same, and I understood that as a writer, the right words have universal appeal.
3. The World is Huge
I lived in South Africa on September 11, 2001. It made the news, of course, but within a few days nobody was really talking about it. Honestly, it wasn't until I came home in January that I realized the gravity of what had happened. In a place where people witness violence and suffering daily, a world event across an ocean just didn't affect them like it did us. Even the biggest news story of our generation didn't have legs in South Africa. The lesson? When the world seems overwhelming, focus on the impact you can make on the people directly around you.
4. Spread the Word
It was in South Africa that I truly fell in love with photography. I carried my camera everywhere because I wanted to tell these stories when I got back. The pictures and stories that I wrote later inspired my brother to travel to Durban three years later. A decade later, he lives in Uganda running a health clinic, and the word has spread through his network to others who have gone to visit and help as well. By taking compelling pictures and writing down our experiences, we truly can inspire others to help as well.
5. Attempt the Ridiculous
I wanted to visit Fish River Canyon in Namibia while I was in South Africa, but that required crossing the African continent. When fall break arrived, I had eight days free. With a group of seven friends, we covered nearly 3,000 miles in a week, camping under the stars at the second biggest canyon in the world and enjoying one of the most amazing natural travel experiences of our lives. Whether it's an assignment that seems impossible or adding another deadline to the pile when I'm already underwater, I know now that if everything I'm doing is something I want to do, I can get it done and enjoy doing it. And sometimes, it's important to drop everything and head out the door without a plan. The experiences you return with will make you stronger in your career and in your daily life.