In the fall of 2001, I was just beginning my junior year in college at American University in Washington, DC. Ever since I knew what it was (probably at some point in high school), I knew that I wanted to spend my junior year abroad. When I visited American as a high school student with my parents, I was psyched to learn of their abroad program, titled "World Capitols."
Many of my friends were interested in taking advantage of European travel experiences, however I wanted to make my semester abroad as unique of an experience as possible. The World Capitols offered a variety of unique and exciting opportunities, and I ultimately chose the program in South Africa.
My parents, and I, were certainly nervous (and of course at least a little excited), about spening six months in Africa. The fall of my experience was only 7 years after the fall of apartheid, and unfortunately there were still many areas of unrest and high rates of violence. The experience of going to the travel clinic at UMASS Med School and being prescribed medicine for malaria and being warned of the risks of drinking tap water while abroad did little to sway our concerns.
Regardless, we knew that it would be an incredible experience and the trip of a lifetime. One major reason that I decided on Africa, as opposed to other unique offerings, had to do with the structure of the program. Unlike other study abroad programs, the World Capitols South Africa program was highly organized and involved a variety of weekend and week-long travel opportunities that were built into the program. We were to spend a week doing an orientation at a mountain retreat, five weeks living with a family in an aparthied-era city in Venda (an hour south of the Zimbabwe border), three weeks traveling togther on a safari along the East Coast, and seven weeks living in a college dorm in Cape Town.
I was looking forward to each unique part of the trip and, after spending a week high up in the mountains for orientation, I was excited to spend time living with a family and attending classes at the University of Venda (UNIVEN). UNIVEN was located in the city of Thoyandau. During apartheid, the government of South Africa attempted to create "homelands" within the country of South Africa. Each homeland was supposed to be an independent country that would be "run" by the historic tribe that lived in a given area. Thoyandau was built amid villages of the Venda people, and even in 2001 it had a very artificial/planned look to it. There was a large market area, off of which all of the town's stores were located. The university was off to one side and the Venda Sun Casino, the most posh area of the town, was located to the other side.
I was assigned to spend my five weeks there with a family that lived in an apartment complex at the corner between the market and the university. The father and mother both worked at the university, and they had two young children that were a lot of fun to hang out with. A few other students from the program also stayed with families in the complex, and it quickly became an afternoon tradition to go swimming in the pool at the complex.
On the afternoon (I think we were about 6 hours ahead of East Coast Time) of September 11th, I had just put on my bathing suit and was about to head out the door to jump in the pool. Almost out of nowhere, my friend who was also on the program came running down the street saying that Washington, DC had been attacked. As in the United States, news reports in South Africa were not accurate and even the people reporting the news were not exactly sure what had happened.
My friend told me that we were to get clothes for a few days, and to meet back at the school in half an hour. At that time, a friend of the program director who was South African was going to pick all of us up and drive us to his home in the mountains, where we could be together and where we could watch CNN on his satelite television (without a satelite, most TVs in that part of South Africa got around 4 channels).
Needless to say, like all Americans, we sat glued to the televsion screen, unsure of what to make of what we were seeing. That evenng, I was able to call my parents and, as we both agreed, I was probably safer there than I would have been in Washington. Over the next few weeks, I was able to exchange emails with friends back in DC and hear there stories of being evacuated from the U.S. Capitol and wandering around without cell coverage, not sure what was going on a few miles from their location.
We stayed up in the mountains together for three days, until we returned to our host families and our classes at the university. After about a week, the university put on a special lunch in our honor offering to do whateve they could to help us. I will never forget the kindness that we received while being abroad on this most horrific of days.