“What happened in school today?” Barbara asked her 14 year old daughter, Audrey, as she walked in the door. “Oh, the same... Some students from South Africa came, and I played my clarinet for some guy, Desmond Tutu.”
Four years later Audrey and her friends had raised enough money to help put 9 South African students they met, through college.
I first learned about Audrey’s work at a social gathering recently, where I spoke with her mom. I hadn’t seen Barbara for years. Not since her family had hosted a South African girl, Ongezwa, who came with a small delegation of South African teens through a project I worked with. After hearing about her daughters’ remarkable achievement, I had to find out more. Audrey and I met at Starbucks a couple weeks later, and she told me of her remarkable journey.
“In high school you get told, “You’re gonna change the world....... Yea, right.
But we have. And it’s so rare that anyone my age ever gets to feel that.”
I asked her about how she even got started to think about doing anything like this. “I am not exactly sure…. I don’t remember a lot about Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s talk, or even who he was at the time. But when I got home and I told my mom I had played for him, she just started crying. The one thing I remember of his talk was him saying how people sometimes make race the thing that singles you out, and just think what would happen if they chose noses instead. If they did, he said, “I would have had to go to the College of Big Noses.”
“Ongezwa, one of eight South African students who visited my middle school, came to stay with our family for a week. And I noticed right off how different we were. I am really shy, or I was then, and she was really talkative. Which was a relief, because I didn’t know what to say, and all the way home in the car, she just kept talking about how many trees there were around Sea-Tac airport! But I could tell by the time we got to our home we just fit together, and were like sisters. And that’s how it’s been ever since".
Audrey and Ongezwa kept in touch sporadically through Facebook during the next year, and when Audrey was in 9th grade, her family traveled to South Africa for 3 weeks, and visited Ongezwa at her family’s township home. She felt the family was very warm, but customs were really different, like the men were fed first and women ate last. While there, Audrey and her mom asked Ongezwa about her plans for applying to college, which she had talked about quite a bit. But she still hadn’t yet filled out any application forms.
"Everyone in her neighborhood stared at us as we left that evening, because it’s so rare that anyone who is white goes to a township. That whole experience really blew out everything for me. I saw how little they had materially yet they seemed to know there is way more to life than money”.
"On the plane ride home, I was bawling, and told my mom that there must be something we can do. Back home I went through a period of time where I said I didn’t want to ever spend money again. Feeling so confused about all this was one of the hardest things I ever went through. But having this experience taught me to think more about other people, and not be so involved with yourself. When you are in high school like I am now, it seems like it’s everything, and I now know it’s not.”
No one in Ongezwa's family had ever gone to college, which was true for the rest of the South African students who were part of the exchange experience. Even if they could pass the college entrance exams, money is an impossible barrier. So Audrey, with her mom’s support, decided to see if they could help raise scholarship funds for the students. Audrey called a student from another participating school, Michelle, whom she had met during the exchange the year before, to see if she had any interest. Together, they slowly got more kids to join in. And now, after 3 years of twice-monthly meetings, international facebook exchanges, dozens of fundraising events that have spanned 7 schools, and a couple major dinners, more than $42,000 has been raised, providing scholarships to 9 students living in townships in South Africa.
Impressive as that is, I suspect the most impressive impact is yet to come. The dozens of deep relationships that have been forged across countries will have a life-long impact in ways that will be immeasurable. Audrey hopes to create a similar chapter of students at Whitman College, where she will go this fall, and has already created a succession plan of younger students to carry on in these 7 schools, through the Seattle South African Scholarship Foundation they created.
“I would love to go and teach in South Africa someday. It’s like a home to me now. I don’t see myself staying in America. I know now that there are so many more options for me out there”.
So does Ongezwa.
Greg Tuke teaches and travels internationally, working with university faculty in India, Indonesia and the MIddle East, sharing strategies for implementing international collaborations within course work. This blog chronicles key experiences and insights about those experiences. All opinions expressed are mine, and represent no other institutional affiliation.