Study Abroad with me in South Africa in 2011 (but, more importantly, just travel!)

A large male African elephant standing next a tree

An African elephant in the Pilanesberg Game Reserves, one of the places we will visit during the UMW 2011 Summer Study Abroad Program in South Africa

Anyone who has taken any of my courses, or glanced at this blog, knows that I feel strongly about the educational value of travel. I have learned more from my travels than I have from any textbook or college course, and I think it is a tragedy that more of my students  – and young Americans in general – don’t get out and see the world.

A great way to see and learn about the world (These independent travelers happened to be at Angkor, Cambodia.)

How you travel abroad is, I believe, less important than whether you travel. Traveling independently is a great idea; it can be cheap, and it is a rite-of-passage for young Europeans and Australasians (Southeast Asia full of them, packs on their backs and Lonely Planet guidebook and bottled water in hand.) For those who are a bit more nervous about traveling independently, tours can be a good way to go. But tourist-oriented tours tend to be, well, touristy, focusing on shopping and brief photo-stops in front of “must see” sights. They can also be very pricey.

A great way to travel as part of a group and learn at the same time is to take part in a college study abroad program. Some of these are semester- or even year-long programs, and allow participants to immerse themselves in a foreign environment and culture. I highly recommend such programs, and you can find out more about them from UMW’s Office of International Academic Services or your own university’s study abroad office, or from websites like

Another option is a short-duration travel study program, usually a three- or four-week long summer program led by a faculty member with expertise in a particular region or topic. The UMW Geography Department offers several such programs. Dr. Dawn Bowen frequently takes students to Guatemala during Spring Break, as part of a course focusing on development issues. In the past I have led half a dozen UMW groups to Australia and New Zealand, this year I am planning to lead my seventh summer program in Southern Africa, and and in December 2011 – January 2012 I will take a student group to Cambodia.

Metal and wooden shacks in a shantytown. Colotful clothing hangs on a washing line in the foreground

South Africa has the most unequal distribution of wealth of any country in the world. As a result, the contrasts in the landscape can be striking. I took the picture above in an informal settlement that is part of the township of Khayeltisha, near Cape Town. A few kilometers away, in the town of Somerset West, I took the photograph below. During our program we will visit both wealthy and poor areas of the country, and examine the reasons for the existence and persistence of such huge inequalities in South Africa

This year’s program will take place in South Africa, and will focus of issues of development and inequality in post-apartheid South Africa. We will also visit one of South Africa’s famed game parks, where will will examine issues of wildlife conservation and environmental geography.

I lived in South Africa for many years, and it has been a focus of my academic interests for a long time, so this is a program I thoroughly enjoy leading and students enjoy participating in. I also know that, for at least some of those who have taken part in the program, it has been a life-changing experience (one student even ended up emigrating to South Africa.)

This year’s South Africa study abroad group will be small; we can take a maximum of eight students. To date, four students have signed up, so we have only four spaces still available. The program is open to students from all schools, majors and years of study, although if it is oversubscribed we may give preference to UMW majors in geography and related disciplines.

The deadline for signing up for the program in February 18, 2011 (it was originally in January, but we have moved the deadline.)

Large cream-colored house on a hill, with an elaborate metal gate

Somerset West

If you would like to know more about the 2011 South Africa Study Abroad Program, I encourage you to visit the program website, where you will find details of our itinerary, information about costs and academic credit, and instructions on how to sign up. If you have any questions about the Program, please don’t hesitate to contact me and/or visit the Office of International Academic Services in Lee Hall.

And, whether or not you decide to join me in South Africa this year, I urge you to make every effort possible to travel and/or study abroad, somehow, somewhere. You will learn more from the experience than you ever dreamed possible.

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