Dear Future Intern…

When you tell people about your upcoming adventure, you’ll get a lot of the same responses, like “Wow, that is going to be an amazing experience” or “You are going to be a changed person when you get back.” You may get a bit tired of having the same conversation over and over again, but know that these people are absolutely right! It’s near impossible to be away from your home and family, immersed in another culture, and come back unchanged. Challenging myself in this way, taught me things about myself that I would not have learned if I had decided to just stay and work in Canada.

In addition to all of the positive and encouraging responses, I also got an overwhelming number of concerned ones. South Africa is known for being dangerous and crime ridden, something I was well aware of. It was a bit overwhelming to have people constantly reminding me of this, like “Wow, isn’t it really dangerous there?” or “You need to be really careful.” I could hear those comments ringing in my head every time I walked down the street in South Africa. When I saw a stranger approaching me, I’d hold my breath, grip my keys like a weapon, and clench my jaw. Every time, the stranger would walk by me and I would exhale unharmed. It was especially bad in the first two weeks, as I assumed the worst of everyone and avoided situations that put me at even the slightest risk.

My first piece of advice to you is: don’t let fear cripple you. Be cautious and be smart, but don’t paint everyone with the same brush. There are dangerous people no matter where you go in the world, but the vast majority of people are good. Meet people, explore new places, and say yes to invitations; it took me a couple weeks to learn this.

Secondly, find a way to find light and joy on even the darkest of days. Some days will be harder than others, and you will be frustrated and angry about the inequalities of the world. Sometimes I came home from work in shock at how prevalent racism, sexism, homophobia, rape, and child abuse still are. These are things that we are quite sheltered from living in Canada, and it was disturbing and upsetting to see how many people are still affected by these social injustices. Some of the things you are going to hear about and witness will be weigh heavy on you, but don’t let them weigh you down completely. Acknowledge the hardships and empathize with people, but don’t think that you need to try and change the world. Find light and humor; laugh with people and be able to laugh at yourself. What I found most inspiring about the people I met, living what is to me, very challenging and unfair lives, is that they still choose happiness every day.

Thirdly and finally, be patient. I was so anxious to start my work at the school that I was a bit disappointed with how quiet and shy the children were at the beginning. Naturally, it took time for people to trust me. Don’t expect to always be warmly welcomed; you have to build people’s trust and form relationships naturally. Recognize your position and your privilege and think about how you might be viewed by the people in your work place. And also be patient with yourself. If you’re anything like me, your emotions will feel completely out of sorts during the first couple of weeks. Your sleep schedule will be messed up, you’ll be overwhelmed about starting a new job, meeting new people, eating different food; things might not feel so great at first. I remember thinking, “So when is this going to start feeling amazing?” Sure enough, once I was settled and people got more comfortable with me, that is when my work started to flourish.

To be honest there is nothing that anyone can say that can really prepare you for this journey. Your experience will be completely different from mine, and from the other interns who went before, because you are your own person. The things that challenged me might be easy for you, and you might struggle with other things that no one warned you about. Relax, breathe deeply, and open your heart and mind. Have faith that it really will be “amazing!”