By Sean Jones
“You are here because somebody believes in you.”
That is how 110 participants in The Fellowship Initiative (TFI) are greeted, deep in the South African countryside, by The Experiment in International Living’s Jessica Macias. This is after a fifteen hour, fidgety plane ride from the States — the first transatlantic flight for many, the first flight ever for some — and an hour and a half drive out of cosmopolitan Johannesburg into a remote camp in the farming town of Magaliesburg, where families of vervet monkeys amble through trees and tangle themselves in soccer nets.
TFI includes three cohorts of 35 to 40 low-income, promising young men of color from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. With funding from JPMorgan Chase, TFI is investing in these young men throughout their high school experiences, in order to help them get into college and capitalize upon their potential. TFI asked The Experiment to give these budding leaders their biggest challenge yet, using its signature model of experiential, cross-cultural learning.
During their sixteen days with The Experiment in South Africa, TFI students will be exploring historic Cape Town, reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s legacy over two nights in Robben Island prison, and encountering Africa’s “Big Five” animals during a game drive in Kruger Park — all alongside spirited South African peer leaders. As they experience this trip of a lifetime, they will be learning to work together, to discover their leadership styles, and to appreciate cultural difference.
Over the opening weekend of their Experiment, TFI students are learning to believe in each other. Their arrival in South Africa marked the very first time that TFI’s New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles student groups came together as one TFI family. Now, they are breaking out of their city cohorts and mixing into six 18 to 20-student “tribes” that will split up to explore the country over the next two weeks.
With the guidance of their Experiment leaders, each tribe must overcome difficult team challenges: from hoisting group members, one by one, over a steep wall, to quickly rearranging a scrambled deck of cards without speaking. Every student’s talent — speed, strength, smarts — is required. As they puzzle, bicker, and laugh over their assigned tasks, tribes that were comprised largely of strangers are becoming teams. Soon, these newly-formed 20-student teams and their Experiment leaders will venture out on their own to see all Africa has to offer. Stay tuned to the blog for more on their experiences.
Sean Jones is director of foundation relations and philanthropic partnerships at World Learning.