Sept. 8, 2015
Editor’s note: Fighting Irish wide receiver Corey Robinson was one of 16 student-athletes who participated in a three-week study abroad program in South Africa this summer. Here is his account of the experience to Notre Dame athletics communications correspondent Curt Rallo.
I got wind of the study abroad program at Notre Dame in November or December. I thought it was going to be to Greece. I didn’t hear about South Africa until February.
I know the professor, Anre Venter, who was going to lead the trip to South Africa, very well. He’s from South Africa. I thought that this would be a great class. That’s ultimately what led me to choose South Africa over Greece.
I know Anre teaches great classes. His classes are all about psychology of self. I like understanding why certain people think certain ways. If you think about apartheid, which was legalized racial discrimination in South Africa, why someone could get behind that? How a whole nation could put that into legislation? Understanding the psychology of that was really interesting to me, so I jumped on board with the opportunity.
Going into the program, the main thing I wanted to get out of it was a focus on how can someone buy into a system that I think is flawed, or think is really unjust? I tried to make myself approach this learning journey really unbiased, not coming in with, ‘Oh, you’re in the wrong, and I’m trying to look for ways to condemn your action.’ It was more like, ‘I’m just trying to learn from an objective standpoint.’
I really wanted to focus on the second part of the trip, which was how rugby was used as a tool to promote apartheid, and then, in the 1990’s, was used as a tool to then promote equality and erase apartheid. To understand how sports can be used for great good, and great evil.
What stuck out to me on the Johannesburg trip, it was mostly about apartheid. It was about trying to understand Nelson Mandela and the challenges that he was fighting against. We visited the home of Desmond Tutu. We saw what his neighborhood was like. It was pretty cool. It’s the only street in the world where there are two Nobel Peace Prize winners. The township is in a pretty bad area.
After that, we went to the Hector Pieterson Museum. He was a 12-year-old boy who was unarmed, and he was shot in the back during a supposedly peaceful protest. The protest turned violent. He tried to run away, and a policeman shot him in the back. That was in the 1970’s. That spurred this movement to try and stop a lot of the injustices of apartheid. There was great injustice before Hector Pieterson was killed, but this was caught on camera, and it came to symbolize the injustice. There was a picture of a young man carrying Hector Pieterson’s body, with his sister in the background wailing. It’s an iconic photograph. It put a human face on the injustice of apartheid, and spurred international attention.
If you grew up in Soweto or Kliptown, you walk four kilometers to school, on dirty, dusty roads. South Africa has two seasons ÃƒÆ’Â¢ÃƒÂ¢’Â¬” dry season and rainy season. In the rainy season, the dirt becomes mud, and you can’t go to school. A lot of kids drop out, not because they want to drop out, but the nearest school is four kilometers away, and they literally can’t get there. You have all of these kids dropping out of school, the unemployment rate in Kliptown is 80 percent, young people don’t have good examples, you can’t get your college degree ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦ there’s one university for the million kids living in Soweto. Structurally, you’re doomed to failure. It’s hard to defeat that.
From Johannesburg, we went to Kruger National Park for two days. We went on a photo safari. We were just there to observe the animals in their natural habitat. We rode in an open truck. Kruger National Park is the size of Maine. All of the animals are wild and roaming. Think about how hard it is to find a cheetah. He can go wherever he wants, and this park is the size of Maine. Some animals, we didn’t see. We didn’t see a leopard. They didn’t want to be seen. We did see pretty much everything else. We saw black rhinos, which are extremely rare. There are only 200 in the park, and we saw two. We saw white rhinos, we saw cheetahs, we saw one lion in the morning, in the mist at sunrise, which was pretty awesome. The safari was a cool, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We went back to Johannesburg, and got on a flight and went to Cape Town for the reminder of the trip, which was about a week-and-a-half.
Cape Town is one of the most physically beautiful places in the world. The mountains are right on the beach. If you’re on the highway, you go right next to the water. The beach is on the right, and 40 feet to the left is a mountain. It’s the most cool, stark contrast. You’re between a mountain, and a gorgeous beach where you see people surfing. It’s breathtaking.
While we were there, it was chilly. It was right toward the end of their rainy season. It was 50-to-70 degrees, raining every day, with 30-to-40 mile-an-hour winds.
We would work out every morning, and then we would have class for about two hours. The class was really special.
This was the first study aboard trip that was all student-athletes. We had seven football players, a couple of women’s soccer players, a couple of swimmers and divers, one women’s basketball player, one men’s golfer, and two volleyball players.
After lunch, we would either do Grassroot Soccer, or Hoops for Hope. Those were our two main organizations that we worked with. We also had a chance to explore the country. We went to a beach where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean. We saw all the cool sights of Cape Town. One day, we went to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.
With Grassroot Soccer and Hoops for Hope, we worked with the life coaches and the kids, who were all elementary school or middle school kids. We’d play games with the kids, and then we’d teach life skills. AIDS is a huge problem in the townships. We went to Khayelitsha Township, which is a huge, huge, huge township. Some of the areas in Khayelitsha are really, really bad. We went where AIDS is very prevalent.
We worked the kids about how to prevent AIDS, or what do you do if you have AIDS. These are all things that are taboo, but these life coaches are trying to save lives through soccer and through basketball, which is really cool.
The experience was really powerful, because it showed me how sports can be used to really legitimately save kids’ lives, not just give somebody the promise of making tons of money, but how sports can reach at-risk kids.
We also had the chance to meet Chester Williams, one of the guys from the movie Invictus. He won the World Cup in 1995. He was one of the first black rugby players in South Africa. He came to our hotel and sat down and talked to us. He talked about his relationship with Nelson Mandela. He talked about his story with racism when he was growing up. Back then, there were only a couple of black players who played professionally. At one time, all the black players had to play in a different league. They couldn’t play for the national team. Chester was like the Jackie Robinson of rugby in South Africa. He broke the racial barrier. He talked about the challenges he faced. That was really cool.
I think the main thing that I learned was that every philosophy, every ideology, has some good to it, which is why people attach themselves to it. Otherwise, why would they do that? Apartheid had some good in it. That’s the one thing I was wrestling with.
The one thing I did realize that with was sports. The main takeaway I got, as a student-athlete, we have an incredible impact. We can touch the lives of children, the lives of adults. Sports can change a country, like Jackie Robinson or Chester Williams. Athletes can change a country through playing our sport, and playing it well, by being a good role model, a good representative, by knowing what it means to be a good man, a successful black athlete, whatever your role is. It can even have international reach, like in South Africa. Soccer can change a kid’s life in South Africa, and it can change a kid’s life here in South Bend.
Notre Dame is one of the first universities in the country to offer a study aboard program strictly for athletes. Notre Dame is encouraging more student-athletes to study abroad and giving us the resources and opportunities to do that. I hope this is the kind of program that more schools can latch on to and take hold of.
Study abroad is a life-changing experience. It can affect the way you see your sport, the way you appreciate certain things, or your path in life. It’s cool for student-athletes who normally wouldn’t have that chance to do study abroad.
I think Notre Dame is really on the forefront in study abroad for student-athletes. I want to thank the University for that. I hope other schools see that you can miss one week of training in the summer, or you can bring strength coaches with you abroad, like we did. There are ways around what people will say is detrimental to our sport. You can still train, you can still get your work in, and you can have this amazing learning opportunity.