Summer in South Africa Inspires Political Science Major

By Heather Cass

Publications & Design Coordinator, Penn State Behrend

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Lillian Gabreski, a senior Political Science major, spent six weeks of her summer studying abroad at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa.

We talked with Gabreski to find out more about what it’s like to study in South Africa and what she learned while she was there.

Why did you go to South Africa?

I studied abroad at the University of Cape Town. The experience was fully funded by a grant from Penn State Behrend to complete my research in international and constitutional law. I’ll be using this research to complete my Schreyer Honors Thesis this spring. I also participated in the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO) Education program.

What were your responsibilities while there?

As a student at the University of Cape Town, I studied community development and the impact of development on regional groups and peoples. As a volunteer for the SHAWCO program, I spent 20 hours a week volunteering in the township of Manenberg teaching English and Math to middle schoolers. Manenberg has become infamous for gang-violence that has plagued its residents in recent years.

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What made you choose South Africa? Have you been there before?

This was my first time in South Africa. I have always been interested in the country because of its unique socio-political history. With the guidance and influence of Dr. John Gamble, distinguished professor of political science and international law, I began to devote my time to learning about the practice of international and constitutional law. South Africa has one of the most liberal and lauded constitutions in the world, and the politics of a country re-entering the international arena after centuries of its majority population being excluded from democratic processes (see: apartheid) are both unique and absolutely intriguing. Thus, it seemed a natural area of interest for me to study as a political science major.

What was the most eye-opening thing about South Africa…or your experience there?

We have a tendency as Americans to believe that the way we do things is the best way to do them, whether in politics, business, or even our personal lives. While I’ve always considered myself to be open-minded, I still thought this way about the U.S. when I went to South Africa. Upon my return, I had a laundry list of policies and reforms that the U.S. could learn from South Africa. As a stable and relatively new true democratic state, South Africa is willing to experiment when it comes to the way they do things, which is something I think we have lost along the way here in the United States.

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Lillian (second from left) with Archbishop Desmund Tutu.

How do these types of experiences enhance what you’re learning at Behrend?

It is one thing to study a country or a political system in the classroom here in the U.S. We all have our perceptions and we’re learning in our own environment. It is an entirely different experience to go to another country and to interact with its people, who have completely different preconceptions and ideas, and to learn from what’s around you. It’s really as simple as that.

What was it like in South Africa? Did you enjoy being there?

I have traveled all over Western Europe, but Cape Town is the most beautiful city I have ever visited. The people are incredibly kind, the geography is absolutely beautiful, and the perseverance of the South African nation in general is truly inspiring. While I spent only six weeks in South Africa, it was enough to leave an impression that has caused me to alter my post-graduate plans to include a focus in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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What’s the most valuable lesson you learned during your experience this summer?

The South African people, specifically those who were discriminated against during apartheid, have an incredible tenet for forgiveness. Rather than seek revenge against those who have wronged them, they seek to remedy their ills via forgiveness and open conversation. I think the principle of being graceful and forgiving rather than continuing the ills of the past via pursuing a path of vengeance can be applicable in any situation whether it be personal or political.

Did you learn anything that you’ll apply this semester to your classes/projects here at Behrend?

Not only am I writing my senior thesis on South Africa and its relation to international law, I am also serving as a teaching assistant for Political Science 003H: Introduction to Comparative Politics this semester and teaching a segment on South African government and politics.

What are you career plans? What do you want to do?

Before studying in South Africa, I had intended to apply for law school. While I’m still taking my LSAT, I’m now focusing more on pursuing a Masters or Ph.D. degree in International Affairs or Public Policy. I would love to someday work in international law, in government, or with an non-governmental organization that would allow me to revise policies and practices on a global scale for the greater benefit of mankind.

Are you earning any minors/certificates?

I’m minoring in History and in Women’s Studies

Do you have any advice for incoming students in your major?

Get to know your professors! They have been invaluable to me not only when it comes to recommendation letters and research opportunities, but also in the advice they have given me to help me find the career path that will make me the happiest. Also, definitely study abroad! It will change your life and help you find your passions.

Why did you choose Behrend?

I initially accepted admission to University Park, but my mother (Dr. Tammie Merino, Lecturer in English at Behrend) convinced me to take a tour of Behrend. I fell in love with the campus and truly felt at home here. After my first year, I knew that the incredible professors and classmates I had at Behrend were invaluable, and that I would spend all of my four years here. There is something to be said for a small campus with the resources of a larger University behind it.

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