Alex Kearns '11

Sociology major Alex Kearns ’11 studied in Botswana with Pitzer College during the fall 2009 semester and then spent the spring 2010 semester at The Philadelphia Center in Philadelphia, PA.

Pitzer College in Botswana is not an academically rigorous program, but what it lacks in academic strength it makes up for through cultural experiences. Unlike some other programs, which offer classes in a foreign university, the Botswana program challenges students by immersing them in communities across Botswana. All of the classroom time revolves around learning the language, Setswana, in an attempt to make communication easier with the local families. The other classes are taught and measured out in the field, through experiences. In the end, the grades seem to be used only as a tool to encourage students to partake in activities outside of their comfort zone. The more I pushed myself to become a part of my families and my villages, the more I learned.

Botswana was not an easy adventure, but the challenges and obstacles were part of the learning experience. Learning to adjust to unexpected circumstances became the majority of the trip. Nothing was ever what I expected, but now that I reflect back on my time in Botswana I have found that my ability to adapt has prepared me more for future life experiences than any time in the classroom ever could. At one point in the trip my internship supervisor died a week after my internship began, leaving me to take control of my own learning. I found out how to use my own communication skills instead of relying on an academic director. Sometimes it was tough, because I felt that I was the only person invested in my learning, but that just motivated me to start more conversations and find other methods of learning that involved one-on-one community research.

Some of the best aspects of the Pitzer in Botswana program are the diverse experiences you are given the opportunity to participate in. The Botswana program was broken into four parts which each challenged me in different ways. The first month I lived in a rural village with all the other members of the program. Each day we would spend four hours learning the language and spend the rest of the time learning about the native culture. During the next section of the program I was placed in a slightly larger town where I worked in Bana Ba Keletso Orphan Care Center, which was a day school for children whose parents had died of HIV/AIDS. During my time there, I helped the administration and taught in one of the kindergarten classrooms. I also helped the center prepare for a large donation ceremony involving UNICEF and the American Ambassador to Botswana. After my time at the center ended, I moved back to the capital for a few weeks to hear guest lectures from University of Botswana professors. During the last month, I did an independent research project at the Social Welfare and Community Development Center in Serowe, Botswana. This center was a government-run social welfare office which was in charge of monitoring the welfare population and distributing resources such as food, clothing, and food supplies. Unfortunately, after my supervisor died, I headed back to the capital early to continue my research there.

In each new place I stayed with a different host family. Some of the families had very little, and others were much better off. In the rural village, my family had electricity but no running water. This meant we heated our water on the fire and brought it in with buckets. We also used a latrine in the back yard. Some families didn’t have electricity so students had to study during the day or by candlelight. As we moved closer to the capital, the living accommodations usually became more modern. My family in Gaborone, which is the capital of Botswana, had running water and electricity as well as a huge flat screen TV. I found that my living conditions really depended on the family that I was placed with and how traditional the community was.

Students who participate in the Botswana program need to be confident that they can be independent. Although the program will be able to offer support, the majority of the time students are away from the center and need to fend for themselves.  Be flexible and willing to change your expectations.

The Philadelphia Center in Philadelphia, PA was a challenging academic experience. I selected two classes, Power and Authority and Social Justice. Each class met once a week for three hours. Every week I was required to read multiple articles, and occasionally books, in order to prepare for class discussion. We also had a paper due every week. The best part of each of my classes was that they challenged me to bridge the gap between the classroom and the ‘real world.’ My professors worked hard to bring my internship experiences into the classroom as an additional learning tool. Overall, by the end of the semester, I felt that I had learned how to apply my classroom learning to real world situations.

The other four days a week, when I wasn’t in class, I worked 8 hours a day at the Homicide Unit in the District Attorney’s Office. I worked side by side with a lead prosecutor who threw me right into the middle of all of her cases. I helped prep murder cases, talked to victim’s families, assisted in murder trials, presented evidence in the courtroom, and coordinated with assisting departments. On one occasion I got to ride along with the Crime Scene Investigation Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department. We got called in to a murder scene and collected evidence, talked with the Homicide Detectives, and assisted the Medical Examiner.

In Philadelphia I lived with three other student roommates in a Center City apartment. My roommates and I met through The Philadelphia Center (we were all studying in Philly together) and agreed that we wanted the same things in an apartment. The center provided us with available apartments managed by reliable landlords and we toured the city looking for the best place. I ended up living two blocks away from the center, City Hall, and my internship placement at the District Attorney’s Office. My giant apartment windows overlooked the busy Philadelphia streets below making me feel like I was a part of the city’s energy.

The Philadelphia Center was the best!!!  I didn’t encounter any problems while studying in Philadelphia. The entire program was extremely organized and I always felt taken care of. The staff at the center is my extended family! We still write to each other and keep in touch.  The staff is dedicated to supporting the students while also challenging them to explore as many opportunities as possible. Overall, I wouldn’t change a thing about my time in Philadelphia.