The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

    Making a bold statement

    Nicole Robinson

    For many, getting on stage to perform or traveling 9,000 miles to a foreign continent would take mounds of courage.

    To senior Jon Gadbois, courage isn’t a factor.

    “It’s just having an open mind to doing different things,” he said. “I guess that is a part of my personality. I want to go out and have a good time.”

    When the opportunity to try something different arrived, Gadbois didn’t hold back. During the 2003 fall semester, he signed up for Eau Claire’s first South African study abroad program.

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    Since the program was new, though, Gadbois didn’t receive much information, so he didn’t know what the experience would entail. What he also didn’t know was how studying abroad would affect his life.

    Prior to the trip

    Gadbois said he knew he wanted to study abroad even before he learned about the South African program. When he went to sign up for the Scotland study abroad program, though, he found himself on the waiting list.

    Later, he heard about a new program sending students to South Africa during the 2004 summer term. The trip, scheduled to run June 22 to Aug. 11, was set to accomplish in seven weeks what other programs do in a full semester. Without hesitation, he said he signed up and was accepted.

    “I thought it would be a really interesting thing to do … considering it would be different than anyone else’s study abroad (experience),” Gadbois said. “Africa would be different than Western Europe and a lot different than America.”

    Despite being excited about the opportunity, he said the trip’s uncertainty was discouraging.

    Study abroad coordinator Colleen Marchwick said she noticed Gadbois’s unique quality.

    “The students who did go into the program were venturous spirits and willing to accept some ambiguity,” she said. “I was impressed that he was really interested in getting to know the native people.”

    Because no one could give him advice, Gadbois said he didn’t worry about preparing for the trip and went into it with no expectations.

    He also said he only knew the area’s recent political history.

    “I wanted to just get down there and find out for myself how (South Africa) was instead of reading about how it was,” Gadbois said.

    A first-hand experience … with some fun

    The program placed Gadbois into Pietermaritzburg, the local center of the KwaZulu Natal region. He lived at the University of KwaZulu-Natal-International School, located in South Africa’s most culturally diverse region.

    Karl Markgraf, director of the Center for International Education, said the area was chosen because of the benefits it offered to UW-Eau Claire students.

    “The campus of Pietermaritzburg is a campus like our own,” he said. “It provides very rich learning opportunities in terms of the cultural diversity.”

    After he arrived, Gadbois discovered a group that showed students around the region every weekend. The group, Native African Concepts, consisted of African natives who took students to mountain ranges and game parks. Students stayed in traditional Zulu huts during weekend stays with Native African Concepts.

    “They taught us everything about their culture,” Gadbois said. “You could definitely see their culture shining through in their personalities.”

    While on weekend trips, Gadbois learned the group used to rap. Because rapping is one of his hobbies, he displayed his talent to the group.

    Later, he found himself rapping on stage during a cultural evening at the university and then on Durban Youth Radio.

    “You don’t really have any idea what people’s personalities are like when you go other places,” he said.

    “They seem like foreigners … but once you go down there and actually see it for yourself, they’re just like us.”

    Between weekends, school consisted of two three-credit courses. Gadbois chose a South African history course called Turbulent Times, as well as a Zulu language course, from the three course options.

    Gadbois said the main challenge of school was the structure of the program. Because classes were held for five weeks, the six credits he took were crammed into that time frame. The key to countering this, he said, was staying on top of the workload.

    Returning home a different man

    Once Gadbois returned home, his perspective of Africa, as well as of America, changed, he said.

    One thing he said he realized was that African culture is more communal than American culture. Possessions are not a primary concern.

    Traveling to Africa, Gadbois said, opened his mind to each culture. He said he respects all of Africa’s cultures for who and what they are instead of viewing them just on the surface.

    “Before I went there, I held a lot of preconceptions against people,” he said. “After going down there … (I learned) all humans beings – their ideas, their actions and all the rest of that – should be respected.”

    Senior Matt Collins, one of Gadbois’ friends, said he’s seen a change in him since he returned.

    “He’s always been open minded, but he’s a lot more accepting now,” he said.

    While the change may have surprised some friends, it’s nothing new to Markgraf. Any study abroad program aims to broaden student minds, he said.

    “(Students) get on the airplane as one person and come back as a different person,” Markgraf said. “It’s probably the single most transforming experience for a person, to live in another country and (see) another culture.”

    Marchwick said students she talked to agreed they found studying abroad to be a positive experience.

    A return trip

    While a study abroad experience affects participants in various ways, Gadbois’ experience encouraged him to do something else: return to Africa.

    While on the trip, he met up with a Rhode Island student, Brian Lenek, who introduced him to Playing for Peace, a paid basketball course that teaches about 10 children in Africa the rules of basketball and helps them participate in games against African townships.

    Gadbois said participating in the program would keep him abroad for about a year. The job pays $800 a month, covering living and transportation expenses and spending money. He said he plans to travel back after graduating this spring.

    “You can look at a globe, and you can point at one, and you can say, ‘This is where I’m from,'” Gadbois said. “Then you can spin the damn thing halfway around and point to a different spot and be like, ‘I made close friends with people that live here.'”

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