Transformational Learning: Reflections on the Personal Impact of Service Learning in South Africa
The Service Learning Program strives to connect students with academic service opportunities that enrich and expand typical classroom learning. While this program is a great tool for students to gain hands-on experience in their course material and develop professional skills, the deep relationships and eye-opening experiences that can be achieved through Service Learning often results in powerful personal changes within the individual as well.
Natalie Graceffa, a Junior Speech Pathology and Audiology major, spent last semester experiencing what for her was a transformational service opportunity in Cape Town, South Africa. The Marquette South Africa Service Learning Program places students in community organizations in the Greater Cape Town region. Service Learners like Natalie who are involved in this program live in community, take classes at the University of the Western Cape, and do service two days a week for their Leaders in Grassroots Organizations course. Natalie was placed at a school for the physically disabled called Thembalethu Special School in the township of Gugulethu. In order to align with her professional goals, Natalie worked under the Head Speech Pathologist both in a Grade 3 classroom and with two students assigned just to her. “It was an absolutely perfect service site for my interests and my major,” Natalie noted. “I had never had individual contact with a child as their clinician before, but I was able to utilize all the skills I had learned in classes up until then.” The experience was invaluable because she learned more about bilingual speech pathology, made individual plans for her students, and became more comfortable working with children with disabilities.
While she knew that working with a Speech Pathologist would be great for her professionally, Natalie was not quite as prepared for the personal impact that this Service Learning experience would have on her. “At first, it did feel like I was just there for my major, because it fit so well,” she admitted. “Then it turned into something that I put my heart into every time I was there. I didn’t really realize the passion that I was going to have behind it.” That passion came from the deep relationships that Natalie was able to form with the therapy team and the students that she worked with so closely. The therapy team was there to answer any questions she had and to support her through some of the difficulties that come with working with children with disabilities, but it was really the relationships with her students that surprised her. “I was able to form relationships with children that never said a word to me. We formed deep relationships that are just inexplicable, because we were able to communicate on a completely different level than I would have with someone else that was able to communicate verbally.”
Drawing from this impactful Service Learning experience, Natalie has translated the things she learned back into life at Marquette University through her work at the Marquette Speech Pathology Clinic, as well as in her relationships outside of work and school. “I guess it just translates completely, because those kids at first sight seemed completely different from me in every category possible.” The kids that Natalie worked with spoke a different language, lived in a different country, came from completely different socioeconomic backgrounds, and were not able to communicate as easily as she was, but she was still able to form very close relationships with them. “Knowing that those kinds of relationships can come in any shape or size or color, especially with the Milwaukee area being so diverse, but so separated, gives me a lot more perspective on how hard it seems to break barriers between people. Thembalethu helped me to realize how easy it can be to break those barriers by focusing on the common ground that solid relationships can be built on.”