Volunteering to make a difference
When ACU education students recently ventured to South Africa to lend their expertise to a school holiday program for young refugee children, it was all fun and games for their young pupils. But for pre-service teachers Sabrina Sbragi and Jessi-Lea Fruend, it quickly became clear they were the ones who had the most to gain from the life-changing experience.
Beyond the comfort zone
Early childhood and primary education students Sabrina and Jessi-Lea admitted they knew little about the life of a refugee in Johannesburg – but it was this lack of understanding that pushed them both to take a chance on the unknown.
“While there are lots of overseas community engagement opportunities for teaching students, I knew I wanted something really different to the kind of experience I could get at home in Canberra,” said Sabrina.
Senior lecturer Dr Jann Carroll was one of the staff leaders who ensured the students arrived in South Africa as prepared as possible.
“Before we left, we talked with the students about what vicarious trauma looks like for children and how to engage them through active listening,” Dr Carroll said. “There’s always some culture shock involved, but we talked it through at our daily debriefs and supported each other.”
Expecting the unexpected
When Sabrina and Jessi-Lea arrived at the Johannesburg school, they were met with warm embraces and open minds, with many of the children being refugees from countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
Through the two weeks they spent with the children on their holiday program, which is part of the Three2Six organisation, they took charge of running activities like swimming and trips to the local zoo, as well as literacy and language lessons and helping the children hone their fine motor skills through arts and crafts.
But like many carefully planned projects, learning to roll with the punches became Jessi-Lea and Sabrina’s main lesson.
“For a start, it rained for the entire time we were there – the first time this has happened in the history of the program!” said Sabrina. “So suddenly that outside activity had to turn into an indoor game. We had to think on our feet and come up with solutions – fast.”
Collaboration and thinking on the spot quickly became their new norm.
“It was chaotic, but it worked!” Jessi-Lea said. “We’d try our best to follow the program and we did plenty of planning, but some things like the rain or a bus running late were totally out of our control.”
Confronted by reality
Johannesburg proved to be confronting for the Australian students and unlike anything they had seen before, with more than 50 per cent of South Africans living below the poverty line.
“We all found it confronting at times. We would be on a bus driving through a poverty-stricken part of the city and it was literally staring you in the face when you looked out the window.
On one side of the road you’d see the homes of middle class or wealthy people, and then on the other side were people living in total poverty,” Jessi-Lea said.
“It is difficult to make comparisons to Australia, as they are so vastly different. The things I would struggle with on a daily basis seem trivial when faced with the poverty and disadvantage the most vulnerable people of South Africa live with daily. But we had a lot of reflection time built into the trip and it was so helpful to talk it all through together.”
Dr Carroll, who is herself South African, said all of the ACU students were changed by the experience.
“We had a daily debrief and the students were journaling every day. I didn’t want to just see what they were learning, but how the whole experience impacted them,” she said.
Learning their own lessons
Dr Carroll said an experience like this is about pre-service teachers having a better understanding of social justice and working for the common good – “the most important thing,” she said.
“It’s very easy to live in our own worlds and not understand the background of the students we teach. But with more refugees coming to Australia, our teaching graduates could potentially have children in their classroom who’ve experienced something very similar to the children we were teaching in South Africa.”
Both Sabrina and Jessi-Lea firmly believe their experiences in South Africa will make them better teachers.
“I understand now that my classroom might be the only safe haven some students experience all week.
It’s really important that I create an environment for them that is comforting, warm and a place they want to be in, not just because they have to be there,” said Jessi-Lea.
“Volunteering in South Africa gave me a better perspective of asylum seekers and refugees. Before, I didn’t fully understand the trauma they’d been through. If I have students in my future classes from other countries, I’ll be much more open and empathetic,” said Sabrina. “I know the kids in Johannesburg were showing up to learn from us, but we really were the ones learning from them.”
Jessi-Lea and Sabrina are adamant that all education students should consider volunteering in an overseas school.
“A better question is why would you not go?” Dr Carroll added. “These trips help our students become well-rounded teachers who are challenged to understand how other people live.”
Sabrina said, “I don’t think you can learn about other cultures unless you’re truly living in them. As teachers we need to challenge ourselves and be open to new opportunities.”
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