Natalie Williams

While participating in Ohio University's HIV/AIDS in Africa program, doctoral student Natalie Williams volunteered at the Olive Leaf Foundation, a camp for orphaned and vulnerable children.

Photographer: Yegan Pillay


Program director Yegan Pillay and his students frequently took excursions to explore the region of South Africa, sometimes crossing paths with wildlife.

Photographer: Yegan Pillay

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Education abroad gives students first-hand experience with HIV/AIDS in Africa

Last summer, 11 Ohio University students traveled more than 8,000 miles to participate in the HIV/AIDS in Africa education program in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

The program, through OHIO’s Office of Education Abroad, is the only U.S. based HIV/AIDS study abroad program in Africa that directly engages students in educational and cultural immersion activities, according to program director Yegan Pillay, a South African who is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education.

During the five-week trip, undergraduate and graduate students worked with organizations in the region, including a hospital, orphanages, a residential facility for adults with disabilities and holiday camps for orphaned and vulnerable children.  

The program was made possible through collaboration between OHIO’s Department of Counseling and Higher Education, the Office for Education Abroad and  the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa.

This is the first time that Ohio University has spearheaded a study abroad program in South Africa concerning HIV/AIDS. OHIO's HIV/AIDS in Africa program was previously located at the University of Botswana in Gaborone.

"The Southern African region has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world, and with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University being at the forefront of research and prevention initiatives to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic, I thought it would be of value to expand the program to include South Africa as a location," Pillay said.

A primary focus of the program is experiential learning that allows students to be temporarily immersed in a culture that is distinctly different from their own. According to Pillay, the trip offered students diverse and first-hand perspectives on social class, economics, education, legal systems and health.

"The objective of cultural immersion is to enhance the students' awareness of their prejudices, biases and privilege, which in the long term would have benefits for them in their future professional roles," he said.

Natalie Williams, second-year doctoral student in The Patton College’s Counselor Education and Supervision program, said she enjoyed learning about South African history and culture from local residents.

One of Williams' most memorable encounters was a conversation with a disabled Xhosa man on race relations. Xhosa is one of the largest cultural groups in South Africa's Eastern Cape.

"It really put into perspective the differences between the racial groups in South Africa; he explained things that weren’t found in textbooks,” Williams said.

The first two-and-a-half weeks in Port Elizabeth consisted of researching the language, food, people and history of the region. During this time, students also visited non-government organizations concerning HIV/AIDS before deciding where to volunteer.

During the last half of the trip, students worked with the following organizations:

•    Livingstone Hospital
•    Maranatha Streetworker Trust
•    Olive Leaf Foundation
•    Cheshire Homes
•    AIDS Haven

Excursions included visits to local museums, game parks and the Grahamstown International Arts Festival. Students also spent a weekend at a farm that was owned by Afrikaaner farmers and visited an African township  so that they could compare and contrast the lives of ordinary South Africans and understand the role that apartheid has played in shaping contemporary South African culture.

"I didn’t really know if what I was doing made a difference until we prepared to leave and saw men and women crying because they wanted us to stay," said Williams. "That really touched me….I didn’t realize until the end that it was all worth it."

Given the success of the University's first HIV/AIDS program in South Africa, Pillay plans on taking another group during the summer of 2012. For more information, contact the Office of Education Abroad.