Postcard from South Africa

January 02, 2023

Editor's Note: Sirianna Santacrose is Director of SEGL in Johannesburg.

When an SEGL student has an idea, no matter how impossible it may seem at first, our first instinct as teachers is to listen. We are a program that encourages student leadership, and encouraging student-initiated ideas is a staple of SEGL’s pedagogy.

Over the years, students have approached us with many initiatives – organizing TEDx-style student presentations, attending President Trump's impeachment hearings, revamping our dress guidelines, and more. And when two students approached the SEGL in Johannesburg faculty last year with a new idea for our Spring Break trip, we listened, too.

Unlike our U.S. cohorts, SEGL in Johannesburg students stay in South Africa over school breaks to explore more of the country and to spend time off campus together. Previously, breaks had meant going on a safari: elephants and zebras and conversations about conservation. The trip was always successful, with photos to share for a lifetime. Planning an alternative would be a lot of work, with no guarantee it would be as memorable.

But Aidan and Georgia's excitement was palpable. They shared that they had spoken with other students and reached consensus. They noted that they wanted the opportunity to learn more about South Africa’s history through exploring a new city that many might not have the chance to visit again.

We thanked them, and challenged them to do additional research and prepare a written proposal.

Two days later, we received an 11-page document outlining potential flights, lodging and local transportation options, and a proposed list of activities. One section of their proposal, titled “Why Our Proposition is Most Ethical,” even included a reference to John Stuart Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle, which the students learn in our Ethics and Leadership curriculum.

The ball was now in the faculty's court. After some discussion to ensure budget and safety concerns were met, the decision was obvious. We were going.

And so, in March 2022, we flew to Cape Town for an unforgettable trip. We visited the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa and the University of Cape Town (where, among other things, the Rhodes Must Fall movement began in 2015). We hiked up the world-famous Table Mountain and swam with penguins at Boulders Beach. But what made the trip the most satisfying was that the students had created it themselves. We returned from the trip rejuvenated and ready to enter the second half of the semester.

This semester, student members of our Thanksgiving break planning committee again proposed a trip to Cape Town. This time, we had a blueprint to work from, and after discussion and a vote we were off for a second time. These students built on the previous semester's foundation, creating their own itinerary, adventures, and sense of ownership.

While spending three days in another part of the country with a group of 18 teenagers may sound daunting, it was one of our favorite parts of the semester. Seeing students bond with one another in a new setting while learning about and exploring a place for the first time is incredibly rewarding.

Looking out over the coastline at the Cape of Good Hope, I could not help but think that we would not be there had Aidan and Georgia not proposed the idea for their cohort back in February. SEGL students are creative, inspirational young people with the drive to make positive change in our world. The role students played in proposing and designing our program’s first and second trips to Cape Town is just a microcosm of the many ways in which they positively impact this community and prepare to impact others.

Here's to our next trip to Cape Town, or wherever our next group of students takes us!