Viterbo University student Theo Braman recently had an awesome experience he and his classmates will never forget.
Braman was one of Viterbo 20 students who traveled to South Africa May 16–30 for the service learning component of the class “Rhythm and Resistance in South Africa.”
“I would absolutely recommend a trip like this to everyone,” said Braman, a biology major from Madison. “It was extremely transformative and powerful. I would love to go back or take another course just like this one.”
Students attended regular classes once a week during the spring semester, concluded by the 15-day journey to South Africa where they learned first-hand about the country’s history, people, culture, and environment. They covered important topics such as the legacy of Apartheid, economic equality, and the HIV crisis on the continent but with a unique focus on the importance of music and the role it played in social change.
“I was really amazed at what a beautiful country it is,” Braman said. “Talking with the people was my favorite part. We were able to discuss the things we learned in class with people who have lived through it, both the privileged and the oppressed. It was amazing to hear the first-hand stories.”
“Rhythm and Resistance in South Africa” was co-led by Viterbo faculty members Matthew Bersagel Braley and Mary Ellen Haupert and study abroad director Taylor Corbett. As part of the curriculum, the class members learned songs in the local languages, which greatly impressed their South African hosts and demonstrated that music is indeed the universal language, Bersagel Braley said.
“Service learning programs like this are invaluable for students,” Bersagel Braley said. “They become immersed in the culture and are able engage in conversations and learning that you can’t get in the traditional classroom. We were confronted by issues like race and inequality in ways you can’t read about. We made unexpected connections with people over and over again, and that is really powerful for the students.”
Other highlights of the trip included the exploration of beautiful natural wonders such as the ancient Sterkfontein caves with incredible fossils, mountains, the Indian Ocean, a safari and native wildlife, cave paintings that date back 5,000 to 6,000 years, Constitution Hill with its infamous prison, the Apartheid museum, and several service days.
South Africa as a destination has numerous unique educational benefits.
“Examining the issue of race and persistent economic inequality allows students to better understand the same topics in the U.S.,” said Bersagel Braley. “Another reason I take students to South Africa is because it complicates the images most students have of Africa. It challenges them to move past images of huts and lions as they explore not only a unique experiment in cultural pluralism but also the dynamic encounters between more traditional rural lifestyles and cosmopolitan urban centers.”
As South Africa develops and changes in the decades following the end of Apartheid, Bersagel Braley explained that visitors gain a palpable sense of history unfolding in this new nation.
“This class always revitalizes my commitment to these type of transformational educational experiences,” he said. “Students recover their own curiosity about who the storytellers are in a society, why history and its interpretations matter, how religion animates daily rhythms—and when they pay attention to these dimensions of human experience, they find their own experience of being human broadens and deepens. That’s what makes teaching these courses both a joy and an privilege.”