Study abroad programs in Africa draw differing interest

Claire Brown

Though both have the same focus as part of Northwestern’s study abroad options in Africa, public health programs in Uganda and South Africa offer vastly different exposure to the culture, language and atmosphere of the continent.

They also have very different histories. Public Health in Uganda is only in its third year, and its administrators have had trouble finding interested students. Meanwhile, the popular South Africa program, which began in 2004, “has always been a little oversubscribed,” said Devora Grynspan, director of NU’s International Program Development.

This year, about 23 students applied but only 17 will be participating in the South Africa program. The other six students were either turned down or moved to other programs, said Vic Flessas, assistant director of IPD.

“South Africa is really interesting, and it has more resources (than Uganda),” Grynspan said. “It is a more sophisticated country, and it offers more opportunities for research.”

Typically students are turned down not because there are too many applicants but because they don’t meet GPA standards or age requirements or don’t have the proper academic background, she said. She added she thinks the high level of interest is due to South Africa’s appeal to students.

“Most students are familiar with South Africa, Mandela, HIV/AIDS and the transition to democracy,” she said.

Uganda, in contrast, is an unusual location that has recently weathered a civil war, said Prof. Kearsley Stewart, head of the program. But this can still be a big draw for students.

Case Martin participated in the program last year and said he wanted to immerse himself in a less cosmopolitan area.

“I wanted the typical African experience,” the Weinberg senior said. “I didn’t want to be at an Afrikaans-speaking, predominantly-white university.”

Students also have the chance to work in one of the best countries for HIV/AIDS research in the world, Stewart said.

“It’s an amazing country that had the worst problems with AIDS and now has the best success stories,” she said. “So if you’re interested in HIV/AIDS, there’s no better place to go.”

Compared to Public Health in South Africa, Uganda is a smaller program, Grynspan said.

The South Africa program aims to admit 12 to 15 students but had as many as 30 students in 2006. The Uganda program admits fewer students, with 10 participating this year.

“It’s more community-oriented and more internship-oriented than (South Africa),” she said.

Prior to this year, the Public Health in Uganda program had implemented a mandatory performance component. Students were required to perform skits to educate Ugandans about health.

“Health education and performance go hand-in-hand, so it would be a disservice to students not to let them know that’s how it goes in the developing world,” Stewart said.

But last year, the program had only seven applicants, and all seven were accepted.

Grynspan partly attributes this to the performance requirement.

However, the smaller quantity of students provided the opportunity for a freshman to attend, Flessas said, adding the decreased applicant pool had no effect on the level of funding or quality of the program.

The performance requirement will be optional this year, and those who choose not to participate will work more traditional internships in hospitals and clinics, Stewart said.

“Maybe it makes people nervous, but I think most of them really enjoy it,” she said. “It’s a great way to meet people and a great way to work with Ugandans.”

The performance requirement also allows for more diversity among students in the program because it attracts theater students as well as students who focus on public health.

The Public Health in Uganda program is “just starting to reach maturity,” Flessas said. This year, they chose 10 students out of an applicant pool of 14.

“A small number is better – 10 is perfect,” she said. “We have a great, diverse group of students.”

[email protected]