Trip to South Africa opened students’ eyes

Hunter O. LyleSports Editor

While many students may have spent their winter break cuddled up at home, a small group from the geography department chose to spend their time exploring South Africa.

For his sixth time, professor and chair of the department of environment, geography, and marine sciences Patrick Heidkamp, along with environmental science professor Scott Graves, led the excursion to study the socio-economic problems South Africa is facing.

“I started the trip with the focus on environmental justice and sustainable initiative developments,” said Heidkamp. “I wanted a higher-level course so it engages on a more theoretical and intellectual level, with some of what’s considered ‘wicked problems.’”

Heidkamp said these problems are complex, layered social and economic problems that are intertwined and not easy to solve, such as the wealth gap between classes and farmers being pressured to give up their land for housing development.

“It’s basically exposing students to really some of those, what seem initially to be unsolvable problems from an environmental and social perspective,” said Heidkamp.

The first trip to South Africa started back in 2011 with only four students, and has become more frequent due to the increased interest.

“Initially, I only ran the trip every other year,” said Heidkamp, “but now it’s become popular and we run it every year.”

The group, which consisted of a maximum of eight students and two professors, traveled across the southern region of the Western Cape, examining several case studies and initiatives, such as iShack Initiative, which aims to strengthen communities and households by providing electricity via ‘Solar Home Systems.’ Sophomore environmental systems and sustainability major Ian Bergemann said he enjoyed enduring rugged conditions on wildlife refuge islands, Thimble Islands, and has recommended the South Africa trip after meeting Heidkamp.

“Out there you don’t have any running water, so you have to get used to that whole sort of way of life, and I ended up really loving it and missing it,” said Bergemann. “Dr. Heidkamp had actually come out there, bringing a group of students from Liverpool at one point, and that’s when he told me about the major and the trip.”

Heidkamp said for many students, the trip serves as a powerful experience that hopefully makes them realize certain things about the rest of the world.

“The idea is to enable students to start thinking about [the socio-economic issues],” said Heidkamp, “and questions some of their own baggage and beliefs that they come in with.”

Bergemann said while the trip opened his eyes a lot, he is still processing his experience.

“I’m still trying to think about all the things I saw, and process everything that I experienced because it was completely different from anything I’ve ever experienced before in my life,” said Bergemann. “I would say, as amazing as it was, there were really hard parts about the trip.”

From seeing informal settlements composed of small tin shacks to stray dogs and rivers filled with plastic, Bergemann said he was inspired to return to help sometime in the future.

“I would want to return, but I wouldn’t want to return as a student or as an observer,” said Bergemann. “I would want to return as somebody who’s prepared to help the people.”

After seeing the issues surrounding the small African country, graduate student Michaela Garland said she learned a valuable lesson about humanity through this program.

“There is hope, I think that’s the biggest thing I took away from this,” said Garland. “Despite everything that goes wrong, despite everything that’s against you, they’re the strongest people I’ve ever met and they have such hope that it’s amazing.”

Photo Credit: Scott Graves

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