16 current Notre Dame student-athletes have the experience to study abroad this summer.

Irish Extra: Blogging from Notre Dame Study Abroad Program in South Africa

June 1, 2015

“Why can’t student-athletes have the full academic experience?”

That was the question swirling around campus that eventually led to the creation of a student-athlete study abroad program (the first of its kind for Notre Dame), a three-week trip combining study, service, physical training, and cultural exploration that’s currently taking place all over South Africa. The program is entitled, “Negative Attitudes: A Cultural, Historical, and Social Psychological Analysis of Racism in South Africa.”

The brainchild of Notre Dame vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick, former Irish women’s basketball star/current MBA candidate Ruth Riley and Notre Dame International Studies director Rosemary Max, the program has attracted 16 student-athletes from seven different varsity sports: football, volleyball, swimming and diving, women’s soccer, women’s basketball, fencing and golf.

The intention of the program was to produce a genuine study abroad experience for student-athletes, an experience they usually have to forgo due to their demanding schedules. So when trip professor and South African-born Anré Venter approached me to see if I wanted to participate, the answer was quick and easy. After all, you rarely get a chance to live vicariously through yourself.

Upon arriving at Washington Dulles airport, I was hit with the first heavy wave of nostalgia/envy, seeing several of our student-athletes decked head to toe in Under Armour issue gear. Wearing sweatpants and sneakers never looked so good.

To the benefit of everyone, junior football wide receiver Corey Robinson beat most of us to our departure gate and welcomed us in style. Bandana around his head, ukulele-like charango in his hands, creating songs on the fly and recruiting fellow student-athletes to sing and play the maracas. . . . I don’t think anyone could have possibly designed a better thesis statement for what this program is all about, and at that moment I knew this trip was going to be special.

Upon landing safely in Johannesburg, we stamped our passports, collected our bags and exchanged our dollars for some rand, also know as Mandela Money (his face is on every bill!). As we made our way to the hotel, the first landmarks we saw were a Hooter’s, a Rib House and a Toys”R”Us, and my initial thought was, “I didn’t know it took 20 hours to find the same commercial strip you’d find anywhere in mid-America.”

The local flavor quickly expressed itself after a shower and a trip to the South African-famous Butcher Shop & Grill. On the way there, I had a chance to bond with junior soccer midfielder Sandra Yu over Ohio ties, pro-LeBron stances and a desire to see domestic professional soccer continue to ascend. As I’ve been getting to know and chat with these kids, it’s been almost staggering just how mature and friendly they all are, and I have to consistently remind myself that I’m not 19 (or rather that they’re not all 25).  

Once at dinner, a couple members of our group asked our tour boss Luke Angel if they could have two steaks, to which he replied, “Well, that’s a first.” Welcome to athletic appetites, Mr. Angel.

  Day two was all about Soweto, the township southwest of Johannesburg, and also the largest black neighborhood in the world with a population of nearly five million, according to our tour guide, “Nintendo” Lutendo. At one time, Soweto was also the home to the only street in the world that housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners — Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

As we toured the Hector Pieterson Museum and the Mandela House, we started to absorb some of the dark and brutal history of the Apartheid Era, although none of that could have possibly prepared us for our visit to the orphanage in Kliptown within Soweto. It’s safe to say our experiences there will take some time for the group to digest and process.

Kliptown (“Rock Town”) is very much the definition of a neighborhood stricken by extreme, extreme poverty: a shantytown, garbage and debris everywhere, and only one or two occasionally working water faucets for the entire population. What was perhaps the most impactful, however, was just how happy and excited the children were to see our student-athletes in spite of everything. Once they figured out that junior football linebacker Jaylon Smith’s arms were actually real, it was over. The rest of the day would be spent tossing, curling and swinging children of all ages in and around the orphanage.

The orphanage itself was a bright spot, but even the kitchen there was filled with almost nothing but empty food containers. The juxtaposition of our student-athletes getting to experience all of this in Soweto, a neighborhood with a sordid history rooted in social upheaval anchored by young people, young students, was and is hard to wrap the mind around and serves as a perfect snapshot of just how fortunate we all are to have these and a million other opportunities at our fingertips.

The end of day two brought us four members of the group who flew out a day later, and all I can say is, “And then there was Jerry.” I doubt there’s a more charismatic, 315-pound, 18-year-old kid on the planet than freshman football defensive lineman Jerry Tillery, and his arrival couldn’t have come at a better time after a long day in Soweto.

The moment I knew Jerry was Jerry was when I found out that he had organized a “Yoga & Yogurt” event in his dorm room within the first five months of being on campus (he was an early enrollee). If that’s not an innate understanding of a “life in balance,” I don’t know what is. When we asked him why he chose “Yoga & Yogurt,” he responded with, “Well, yoga was the first component, and then I just thought it could use an alliterative aspect.” Somewhere there’s a poster for the Notre Dame student-athlete spontaneously materializing, and I’ll buy one.

Day three saw us visit the Apartheid Museum, a beautiful, intensely visual and narrative experience that felt like walking through a textbook on the history of South Africa. By the end of the day, I think it’s safe to say we all knew more about Nelson Mandela than we did about ourselves, and that’s not such a bad thing.

As we travelled from museum to museum, it was evident the group was getting hit with its first major bout of jetlag–but that didn’t keep junior swimmer Katie Miller and me from discussing the virtues of traveling light, living light and being grateful for what you have. I believe it was evident that our cumulative experience from the previous days had already begun to have a positive impact on the nature of our thoughts and conversations, even as we fought to stay awake.

In the first three days, this program has already proven its worth, and the kids still have two days at Kruger Nation Park and a jam-packed two weeks in Cape Town ahead of them. It’s been a blessing to have a front-row seat to watch this program unfold, and I can only hope this trip will serve as a blueprint for other programs in the future and truly become one of the cornerstones of the Notre Dame student-athlete experience.  

Another thing we’ve all learned is that there’s never an occasion where words from Nelson Mandela don’t apply:

“I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds there are many more hills to climb.” — Nelson Mandela


                                                            — by Zach Hillesland, special correspondent