The 2013 Summer Study Tour to Africa

A report from UAlbany students Meera Bhat, PhD candidate, Social Welfare; Lacey Cukier, MSW candidate, Social Welfare; and Linda Azón ’14, majoring in Sociology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Students in AfricaThis summer a group of eight students (one undergraduate, six graduates and one PhD student) toured South Africa and Tanzania as part of the 2013 Summer Study Tour to Africa (SSTA), led by SSW Associate Professor Robert Miller. Their mission was to study welfare policies focused on gender, HIV and children. The trip began in a classroom at the School one week before the departure to let the group get to know each other, understand the premise and need for social welfare as well as for policy, and set goals and expectations for their experiential learning journey.

The two weeks on the African continent entailed visits to hospitals, orphanages, schools, NGOs, government offices, universities and historical sites, with the goal of gaining first-hand understanding of the historical, social, economic, and political contexts of why Africa matters, and to analyze these contexts within a local and global framework.

This trip is often transformational. In the words of the students:

When we, as students, go out into the working world, most of us will not be dealing with people in a laboratory-like vacuum. We will not be dealing with people having control over their situation. We will not be dealing with objects of study, but real people. There is very little room for error, which is why such experiences as our tour of Africa prepare us for such real life situations.

“If, as a social worker, I want to empower people to, as Gandhi phrases it, ‘be the change [they] wish to see in the world,’ I must step away from my biases and ask what they see in the world,” said Lacey Cukier. “My out-of-class experience did not start and end with Africa. Our field placements are other important components to real life experience. Not all students must go as far as Africa to realize this truth.

“My field placement was a place where I could choose to carry my biases or not,” she added. “I was still the person in control of my environment, in my own office, in my own country. In this way, it was simply dipping my toes in the ocean while reading a book about how to swim. My trip to Africa was more about diving in, head first, to learn how to see the bigger picture.”

As people and as students we are all different and we learn differently. These sort of out-of-class experiences cater to the needs of all kinds of learners. The combination of visual, auditory and kinesthetic stimuli with the push for critical thinking skills makes us scholar change agents instead of merely workers! We are indeed very grateful to the School of Social Welfare, Dr. Miller, and the US-Africa Partnership Summer Study Tour Fundraising Committee in Rhinebeck and all of the donors that made this possible for us.

The project will continue to promote stronger relationships by engaging, educating, empowering, and preparing leaders – students, faculty, and community-based practitioners – to function in a global society. According to SSW Distinguished Professor Shirley Jones, who founded the SSTA in 2000, the summer study tours are part of the community engagement and service learning programs that are receiving growing recognition, both in the U.S. and South Africa.

From the Journal of Linda Azón

The Constitutional Court building is on grounds that housed a prison at the time of apartheid. Louie, our guide, told us that he frequented these grounds. During apartheid, he said everyone was on a 6 p.m. curfew. Anyone found after 6 p.m. was arrested. The prison was separated by blacks, Indians, whites, men and women. This was one of the big things that started angering the Africans, because they were “trespassing” on their own land. How do you trespass on your own land? The land you were born on, that you were growing up on? How is it possible to be forbidden to walk the streets of your home at whatever time you want? If Louie wouldn’t have told us that it happened to him or he witnessed [during apartheid], I truly would have not believed it.

From the Journal of Lacey Cukier

Before I had gone to South Africa and Tanzania, I had read so much about the issues that affected Africans' wellbeing in local newspaper articles, African policies, and research studies. I could not understand why South Africa and Tanzania had not simply tried to implement policies similar to countries that avoided the societal, economic, and political issues that seemed to plague them. I spoke to doctors, professors, and leaders in many different fields at all different levels. We spoke with our tour guides, people on planes, people in restaurants, shops, and other public places. We met people who had experienced unspeakable acts of violence due to the social and political context of whom they were and where they lived. Then I understood.

From the Journal of Meera Bhat

Today we were at the only cancer hospital in Tanzania. Only 270 beds for cancer patients in a country of 45 million people were here. It took me a while to compute and absorb that it meant that 170,000 people were competing for a bed; this in a country with a raging malaria and AIDs epidemic that increases the risk for specific types of cancer. And this was the only hospital with a staff of 200 people, in the whole country!

As if this wasn’t enough to wrap my head around, we were told that since only 10 percent of the population has access to health, their focus was on preventive care. Was there a point in doing this? What would I do if I had to decide? Maybe I would expend 80 percent of my resources on preventive care but then who would go to a doctor for prevention if the doctor couldn’t cure? In response to one of our questions, a doctor casually said that they do not do ‘Pap smear tests’ for cervical cancer but relied on ‘visual examination.’ All of us, all women, were outraged which I guess was visible on our faces and in our voices so he explained that the required resources and infrastructure were simply unavailable.

I left that place in a daze, thinking I would hate to be the one making such decisions, but at least he was making a difference. It seemed like a cruel joke now! I am from India and I have seen and experienced bad and differential healthcare. I have even been denied a gynecological exam because of being unmarried and I could have fought for my rights. But this is such a helpless situation! What can one do? What can I do?