Students take leadership venture to South Africa

by Sandra Knisely, UW-Madison Communications

After more than 40 hours of traveling, 30 University of Wisconsin-Madison students arrived last week in Cape Town, South Africa to start a two-week adventure in South Africa’s capital city that will include a leadership seminar and service projects.

The engineering and genetics students are paired with 30 University of Cape Town students for the 2008 Leadershape Institute, a national leadership program held annually at the UW-Madison College of Engineering. Though international students have come to the United States to participate in the program, this is the first time U.S. students have traveled abroad for Leadershape. This year also marks the first time the Leadershape seminar will be complemented with service projects to help students put their skills to use.

Student writer and participant Sandra Knisely is providing regular updates on the experience.

The trip began bright and early on New Year’s Day, and immediately became an exercise in leadership as a great deal of logistical skill was needed to get 30 students, as well as two faculty advisers and their spouses, all in the right place at the right time for the flights.

Junior genetics student Meg Holler and civil engineering junior Rebecca Gilsdorf are, as student coordinators, responsible for keeping track of everyone. Main coordinator Kathy Prem from the Office of Engineering Career Services traveled ahead of the group to Cape Town, so Holler and Gilsdorf had to tackle the complications that come with taking a group to an entirely different continent.

What’s most important for those coordinating a group traveling internationally? Cell phones, says Holler, and plenty of patience. A couple of logistical hiccups did come up that tested their resourcefulness. One student missed the 5 a.m. bus from Madison to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Luckily, the student made it to the airport via cab. Later in the trip, two students missed the final flight from Johannesburg, South Africa to Cape Town, and Holler and Gilsdorf had to sort through the situation and track down the students. Everything was just fine after the students were put on a later flight and arrived in Cape Town shortly after the rest of the group.

Otherwise, the trip went smoothly, and the greatest hassles involved broken remote controls for the personal TV screens on the 14-hour flight from Washington, D.C. to Johannesburg.

The other issues were common to any long distance traveler: fatigue and boredom. But when the South African airliner cruised over Namibia around 8 a.m. Wisconsin time, the students who weren’t asleep got a fresh dose of enthusiasm for the trip. Another rush of adrenaline swept the cabin after the massive urban sprawl of Johannesburg appeared out of the reddish, vacant South African landscape. That boost proved crucial for students as they navigated the busy, perplexing layout of the Johannesburg airport.

The first thing everyone noticed about Africa as they stepped off the plane was the heat; Johannesburg boasted 102 degrees Fahrenheit on January 2, and the stuffiness of the airport did little to help the group during their final layover. After some initial delay, the last flight went quickly and the group descended into the endless yellow lights of Cape Town about 9 p.m. local time (1 p.m. Wisconsin time).

Industrial engineering senior Matt Kopetsky says the sight of Cape Town was exciting. “This trip is going to be amazing,” he says. “I can’t wait to see the city.”

After a 20-minute ride — on the left side of the road — in the bright blue buses that will shuttle the group around in the coming weeks, the group arrived at their final stop: the University of Cape Town (UCT). UCT is situated at the base of Table Mountain, the 3,566-foot landmark that the group will hike in a couple of days. Its elevated position provides a stellar view of nighttime Cape Town.

Each student has an individual room (though many must share very few bathrooms) in the UCT dorm, which is structured in a square around an open courtyard with a massive palm tree in the center. The dorm, dubbed “Harry Potteresque” by Prem, has ivy growing on the walls, tower-like corners and large brick archways. The rooms themselves are warm-toned with wooden floors and furniture, as well as matching tan curtains and bedspreads.

In the morning, the students will jump start their trip with a tour of the campus and nearby forest preserve, and the afternoon will be spent in the famous Cape Town waterfront. However, for now the students have fallen into bed, exhausted but successful after traveling half a world away in the last two days.