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Goodbye, USA; Sawubona, South Africa!

Terrascope student sees firsthand the complexity of water security in South Africa.
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Libby Koolik '17 makes a presentation at the water security panel in South Africa.
Libby Koolik '17 makes a presentation at the water security panel in South Africa.
Courtesy of Terrascope

Editor's note: Libby Koolik is a freshman from Boca Raton, Fla., who participated in the Terrascope Freshman Learning Community. She is majoring in earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, and is hoping to apply the problem-solving skills she learned in Terrascope to help fix serious environmental issues in the future.

Terrascope, a freshman learning community that tackles major global issues related to sustainability and the environment, has proven to be a learning experience unlike any I have ever heard of at another university. After spending an entire semester developing theoretical solutions to global water-security problems in the Terrascope classroom, Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) professor Samuel Bowring — in collaboration with professor Maarten de Wit, his colleague at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) — took 43 students on a life-altering trip to South Africa over spring break.

The goal was to take our classroom solutions and see how successful they could be in the “real world.” Along the way, we learned about geology; cool South African languages — including "sawubona," the Zulu word for "hello"; the effects of climate change on Africa’s water problems; South African culture and social issues; the apartheid era; and the deep love and respect the South African people have for Nelson Mandela.

I had no idea what I had signed up for when I decided to go on the trip. I vaguely expected we would go to South Africa, see some elephants, meet some NMMU students, talk about water, and go home. We did see some elephants — and it was awesome! — but we did so much more. We discovered new, innovative techniques to solve many of the issues we confronted in class; learned about climate change; observed the effect of changing sea-level on the South African coastline; and explored the cave dwellings of the first Homo sapiens.

Most importantly, the trip opened our minds to a completely different perspective on the issues we had debated for months. Instead of sitting in an MIT classroom discussing how dirty water affects rural communities, for example, we watched a little girl try to drink water from a mud puddle with a spoon. Along the way, we learned some of the history of South Africa through firsthand accounts of people who fought apartheid during a period referred to as “The Struggle.” We met people who put their lives on the line to convert their aspirations into realities. Through these speakers, we learned that passion and dedication can truly facilitate change.

We had many seriously eye-opening experiences in South Africa. We walked through townships made up of crude shacks and small houses where the people have no access to clean water. We went to a school where the principal organized the community to bring water and toilets to the school and to improve education in their community. We visited small settlements that have been continuously occupied for more than 200 years, where the community has carefully preserved access to fresh water. They love their neighbors so much that they share food from their house gardens. Throughout our travels we saw extreme poverty and extreme opulence, almost painfully juxtaposed.

However, for me the most eye-opening aspect of the trip was developing an appreciation for the power of communication. Our trip facilitators encouraged us to talk to and get to know our colleagues at NMMU as well as the local people we encountered. Through simple chats we learned the most pressing issues at hand, and the overarching complexity of the problems that are often so oversimplified.

I had a unique opportunity to experience the power of communication during the Terrascope trip. Two teams of students — six MIT students (myself included) and six NMMU students — participated in a debate on sustainable development and water security in South Africa. The event was open to the public, and I was amazed at how many NMMU students were in the audience. They came to voice their opinions and to share how passionate they are about water security in their country.

However, the most moving part of the experience for me wasn’t the actual debate, but the preparation! The night before, I spent four hours sitting by the hotel pool with my group of fellow panelists having a serious yet friendly discussion about the topic. It was fascinating for me to see how our perspectives on the issue both differed and paralleled, especially given the 7,750 miles and humungous ocean between us.

Looking back on the crazy week we had, I can honestly say that this trip was an unforgettable journey. I cannot thank Sam and Maarten enough for the incredible adventure that they took us on.

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