It is said that South Africa cannot be understood without being experienced. During the recent winter break, about a dozen John Jay students got a thorough immersion in the vibrant complexity that is South Africa, thanks to a study-abroad trip to Cape Town that focused on “The Culture of Race, Resistance & Revolution in South Africa, Then & Now.”
Led by English Professor Baz Dreisinger, author of the 2016 book Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World, the group spent 10 whirlwind days in South Africa, visiting landmarks, meeting with influential cultural and political figures, and engaging with incarcerated individuals in prisons that have played important roles in the country’s emergence from the apartheid era.
Kenyatta Leseur, a senior Forensic Psychology major, had been urged by a fellow student to take part in a study-abroad program, and said that when he saw Cape Town listed among the winter offerings, he quickly decided “Wow! This is for me!”
With a full schedule of classes in the morning and field trips in the afternoon, Leseur said, it became difficult to single out a high point of the trip. “There was so much, you really can’t remember it all. We met people, ate the local food, enjoyed the culture, and talked about something every day based on the books we read.”
Apartheid is officially a thing of the past but, said Leseur, “within the townships there’s still a lot of economic disparity.” Still, he quickly added, “Trust me, coming in as an outsider, it’s beautiful and diverse.”
The class visited Drakenstein and Robben Island prisons, which achieved worldwide notoriety for housing anti-apartheid activist and future South African president Nelson Mandela. “We didn’t go as tourists,” Dreisinger said of Drakenstein. “We went to share and learn from the incarcerated men there.”
The visits were particularly meaningful for Devon Simmons, the first graduate of John Jay’s Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP) program, who previously spent 15 years incarcerated at Otisville prison in upstate New York. Simmons earned his associate’s degree at Hostos Community College and is now a junior at John Jay majoring in Criminal Justice with a minor in English.
Simmons noted that Robben Island is now a “tourist attraction” but still held an element of familiarity for him. It was at the still-populated Drakenstein, however, that Simmons’ emotions bubbled up, bringing tears to his eyes. “It was my first time inside a prison since my release,” he noted. “But to go back with my degree and say to the people we met, ‘look at what you can accomplish,’ and inspire others was really the high point for me.”
Dreisinger, the P2CP’s founder and academic director, posted on Twitter that the image of Simmons looking pensively at Mandela’s former cell on Robben Island was “what justice looks like,” and “one of the most profound moments of both our lives.”
Dreisinger and her students say they hope the study trip planted the seeds for a P2CP program in South Africa.
John Jay’s winter session also included study-abroad trips to Buenos Aires, Argentina; Florence, Italy; Quintana Roo, Mexico, and Rabat Morocco. Click here for information on planned summer 2017 offerings.