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Matthew Burgstahler

­­­­Matthew is an Ambassador who studied abroad in South Africa

Major: Integrative Health Science

Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you decide on this program?

South Africa was a chance to step outside my comfort zone, experience a new medical system, and think introspectively about my 21 year old life. South Africa has 11 different national languages. It has a challenging and gripping history with Apartheid and a struggle for social justice with Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu. Stepping into South Africa I had medical professional and academic goals and I was focused on the next opportunity for self improvement. South Africa was one of those steps of self-betterment. I knew I would change on this journey, but I did not realize that I would find myself lost in the minds and stories of others. Yet, for me South Africa became so much more than a stepping stone in a career... It became a cultural and personal learning experience.

Briefly describe a specific cultural experience you had on your trip that made a lasting impression.

In a Pre-departure assignment, I mentioned, “I truly want to think deeply about the race relations among the colored population, the blacks, and the Afrikaans” and now I have such a deeper knowledge of the context of this statement. I smile as I think back on how little I knew about these groups of people and how to understand race relations you must first understand on an individual level who makes up these classifications. The goal not being to place people in boxes but to think deeply about every individual as a product and a reflection of their space in the blanket of social fabric.
The interactions I had with South Africans have helped develop my mindfulness, my awareness of myself, the situation, and my mental maps for future interactions. I met Micheal Bekapi on a run in South Africa and subsequently raced and trained with him and eventually swapped shirts. In my interactions with Michael, a black 56-year-old, I have become a better listener. Michael will say a comment such as “is it… I had R1000 only last week but a sick dog. The next run on Saturday will be flying”. Hidden within a simple statement is one that makes you shudder and learn. Michael supports a child, a girlfriend, a home, a car, food, and running with R1000 a week ($80). I had dinner with Michael twice, we ran together and talked, and I was exhausted at the end of many runs and even a few conversations. I have never listened so hard to a personal story. Thank you Michael for helping develop listening, a critical part of mindfulness.

Describe your overall study abroad experience.

My South African experience is too complicated for a single topic sentence. I could have started with the exciting part: South Africa had me running away from an ostrich, jumping from a bridge with but a band around my ankles, and sleeping 10 meters above a sandy beach next to the ocean. Yet, that would have entirely missed the culture: South African culture is neither monolithic or static but inexplicably complex and from each individual interaction and each friendship I gained a deeper respect for cultural diversity. Even still I have not touched on what I learned: South Africa changed my perception of poverty, increased my frustration with social injustice, and renewed my passion in the human spirt. From a gender lens: South Africa forced me to see the social construction of gender as a verb preformed differently in each respective culture. Regrettably and impossibly this leaves out the people I have met- people that have asked me how I am and genuinely cared to hear the answer. Coming to South Africa, I felt like myself but leaving I knew myself. Iceland, Paris, Germany, London, and especially South Africa reinvigorated my desire and I believe improved my ability to engage with any human being. However, I hear the arrogance of this statement and I understand my South African experience was simply a starting point to develop a more inclusive awareness of people, gender, culture, and our world.

Based on your experiences abroad, what are some of the benefits of spending a semester abroad? How has studying abroad contributed to your personal, academic, and professional development?

Personally, I changed from an individual who connects with individuals “on the fly” (quite literally on every airplane ride ever) to one that is searching for deeper bonds and working on spending more time with people. I hope to bring some of the “people time” back to those around me in life. I believe it is a very mindful practice. In a letter to Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela once wrote,
“In judging our progress as individuals we tend to focus on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education… but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being: honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men—qualities within the reach of every soul” (Nelson Mandela’s Advice).
I believe the quotation, a beautiful piece of prose, from the most impactful historical figure in South Africa is so crucial for analyzing personal growth. In the US it is easy to base your character on academic merit, athletic achievement, and popularity among friends, but in South Africa there is little time for comparison. Instead, human engagement and personal reflection become the most important aspects in life. How well can I treat others? How much can I learn from the people of South Africa?
Academically, South Africa has given fire for my passion for social justice as an avenue of medicine. My future classes will be dealing with medicine in a very western model including: Anatomy and Physiology, Applied Pathophysiology, Diet Disease and Prevention, Medial Ethics, and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction research. However, I hope to hold on to the human empathy, which I have developed in South Africa. Empathy works as a caring mechanism as I have seen on countless occasions as I tended to Zebulon’s father with plastic bags on my hands or when I knelt and washed the feet and legs of Constantine battling a bacterial elephantiasis condition. I believe the moments of pure human compassion beyond the bounds of language in South Africa have helped me see the importance of human touch and connection. The look in someone’s eyes and the holding of a hand are some of the most powerful tools in a physician’s handbag. South Africa I thank you for grounding my future medical training in empathy. I have seen an incredible spectrum of patients up and to the point of death in one case. I have felt some of the deepest pain for those individuals that I had never met. I plan to keep this feeling of emotional connection with me at all times, and draw on it if I ever feel detached in medical training or later practice.
South Africa- as challenging as it was at times contributed enormously to me as an individual, a johnnie, and a fellow human being. There are not three worlds only one and we are all connected. 

What advice can you offer for CSB/SJU students who are considering or planning to study abroad?

Listen with the ear of your heart. Engage not to be understood, but to understand. Respect all persons. I distinctly remember saying to friends and family how excited I was to experience the diverse culture of South Africa- I was not entirely wrong but I have since changed my perception of South Africa as a singular culture. South Africa is diverse, but it is the people of South Africa, which make the country such. In some of my interactions with South Africans from a 56-year-old black man Michael, to a colored community health worker Lisa, to a black history student Qhawe, to a middle aged Afrikaner couple Corbus and Marieke I have come to realize that there are multiple cultures within South Africa. If someone was to say, “paint me a cultural picture of South Africa” I would point them to the South African flag- not for its symbolism but for its intersecting yet completely individual colors. From my position of privilege as a white skinned male, I had the opportunity of social mobility and engagement with many different groups and I observed trenches dug from years of history. In South Africa, I have seen a segregated country proud of its people but frustrated at the festering wound left by Apartheid. I have felt fear at some points as I found myself walking in the suburbs surrounded by tall walls and electric fences. Yet, I have also felt unabridged love from individuals I met on campus and at Missionvale working towards a more inclusive South African identity. Overall, speaking and sharing a meal or even a brief conversation with a South African paints the nation even more ‘colorful’ than meets the eye. The other cultural perceptions I had before embarking on this study abroad, beyond seeing South Africa as a singular culture, included: seeing culture as only a small part of a person’s identity, thinking of South African culture and all cultures as based in “fact”, and an assumption of a lack of poverty ‘culture’. I learned an immense amount from my time abroad and my actual advice would be that listening is the single most important part of studying abroad. Listening to your colleagues you travel among, the people you meet (and make sure you spread your wings to meet them), and yourself. Ultimately, get lost in the childlike wonder of exploration and experience. When studying abroad you are a sponge, you are not there to scrub or clean up the difference in culture, but you are there to absorb the depth of another human perspective- be it an individual or culture.

Questions?

Do you have questions about studying abroad in South Africa? Email Matthew at [email protected]