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Study abroad in South Africa opens student's eyes to another world

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Isna Kugshia lived in South Africa for only eight months, at age 12, but she fell in love with that nation so far from her Rogers Park home.

"There is something about this country that makes you keep coming back — it could be the warmth of the people or the natural beauty contained within its borders," says Kugshia, a junior majoring in biological sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

So she returned to South Africa for spring semester, to study abroad through the nationally competitive Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship program.

Eight UIC undergraduate students were awarded scholarships to study abroad during the Gilman program's spring/summer 2010 cycle. The latest group represents a record number of scholarship recipients in a semester from UIC and places the university among some of the country's top institutions for winners during the latest Gilman award period. Since 2006, 27 Gilman scholarships totaling nearly $115,000 have been awarded to UIC students.

Kugshia, a student in the Honors College, also received its $1,000 Flaherty Scholarship.

She chose to study in Cape Town, Africa's southernmost city.

"I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could move past culture shock and begin to adapt to South Africa, something I could not do when I first came here," explains Kugshia, who plans to earn a doctorate of pharmacy with a career goal of becoming a pharmacist.

Based at the University of Cape Town, she took diverse courses: a graduate seminar on race, culture and identity in Africa; an introductory microbiology class; a health and community development course.

She also enrolled in a beginning Arabic language course that examines Egyptian dialect and culture.

Kugshia welcomed the opportunity to live and study in South Africa's second-largest city.

"I wanted to see first hand the changes the country has been through post-apartheid and speak to those that have lived through the era," she says.

Kugshia says visitors can't fail to notice the role of race in everyday life and the infrastructure of the city during the post-apartheid era.

"The moment you leave the airport, you drive past informal settlements while seeing Table Mountain in the back. Cape Town is still struggling to move past its socioeconomic divisions artificially created in the past," she says.

"The gap between the low-income families and the affluent is so evident, and continues to be growing. If you take a stroll from one neighborhood to another you go from seeing shanties to gated bungalows."

Kugshia's studies and travels carried her beyond the status of an observer.

Collaborating with two students from her health course in an impoverished urban area of Cape Town, she developed presentations for community members on the risks of drinking for pregnant women.

"I was able to interact with local people in this township who are predominantly Xhosa speaking," she says.

"This is a challenging task because language is a barrier and this is the first time fetal alcohol syndrome is being taught here."

Her excursions included visits to the coastal nature reserve Tsitsikamma National Park, the Cango Caves and Robben Island, the site located off Africa's west coast where Nelson Mandela and others were held prisoner during the apartheid era.

She returned to Johannesburg, where she had lived with her family during their time in South Africa.

"Having lived in Jozie for some time, I still felt like a complete stranger in the 'New York of South Africa,'" she says.  "I could see more poverty and especially more crime in open daylight."

She and fellow students stayed in Soweto, a historically significant urban area in the city that was a designated black township under the apartheid government.

Particularly moving for Kugshia was learning about student uprisings and visiting a site where many young people were killed by apartheid police.

"I realized how unjust the apartheid government was and how, even today, in South Africa's infrastructure, apartheid was manifesting in an invisible, secretive way," she recalls.

The Khan family, who lived in the Cape Town suburb of Athlone, helped make her feel at home during her stay. She joined them for weekend dinners and they became "my South African parents and family."

"They have shown me another aspect of South Africa, and have also shared countless apartheid stories as they were forcibly removed to accommodate for the development of white residential areas," she notes.

As South Africa prepares to host the wildly popular FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, she wonders how well the world knows the "real South Africa."

Despite her frustration with the country's legacy of division, Kugshia says she is grateful for the Gilman scholarship and a life-changing experience.

"My study abroad semester here has opened my eyes to another world and I have grown as a person," she says.

"It was a nontraditional study abroad destination and I'm glad I chose to be here."


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