Dec. 3, 2013
Despite being the victim of a robbery that left her without her cellphone, her laptop and her iPad, Vanderbilt senior Brionne Williams firmly believes she came home from South Africa with far more than she left with.
Williams, a standout high-jumper for the Commodore track team, spent seven weeks in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of a study-abroad program this summer, and she says the memories she collected and the knowledge she gained are greatly more valuable to her than the assortment of electronics that were taken from her.
Those things, after all, can be replaced; the indelible images from the trip can not.
Williams, a native of Hoover, Ala., was introduced to a whole new culture in South Africa, and in the process, she found out quite a bit about herself, too.
"I learned a lot more than I thought I would," said Williams. "Being in a that setting is so much different than being in a classroom and learning it from a text book.
"My program was focused on healthcare, and [even though] you hear things on the news, seeing it is totally different. Just being immersed in the different culture and seeing their healthcare system and how different it is. ... Even though it is free healthcare, it is not good healthcare. It was really eye-opening to see."
Williams has been home from South Africa for roughly four months, and she has since settled back into her normal routine. She and her Commodore teammates are set to open a new season -- and a brand-new indoor facility -- when they host the Music City Challenge tonight at Vanderbilt's recently-completed indoor venue.
But for Williams, the "normal routine" feels a little different now.
Her trip to South Africa transformed her perspective, and the memories are still fresh in her mind. They aren't likely to fade any time soon.
One of the lasting impressions of her trip will revolve around the theft that took place in the apartment where she was staying. At the time, she considered it to be an almost disastrous occurrence. Now, though, she views it as a positive, saying it gave her a chance to show her ability to adapt.
"It was kind of devastating at first because I have never had anything like that happen to me, directly and personally," she said. "But I had to get over it. I was still in the middle of a program, and I wasn't going to come back home just because a couple of my belongings had been taken from me."
After her things were stolen, Williams realized something: Although cellphones and laptops help us stay connected with others, they also can facilitate isolation, causing a person to shrink into his or her own little world.
And Williams wasn't the only one who realized that. The other students on the trip found that to be true when there was no Internet connection.
"With the lack of WiFi, I realized how much we depend on it," said Williams. "You could see on the nights when we did have WiFi ... We were all in our little corners, talking to our families, and on Facebook. But the nights when we didn't [have the Internet], we were all together. We would have great bond fires and would be talking and eating S'mores and enjoying each other."
Williams, the only Vanderbilt student on the trip, said the opportunity to go to South Africa was a dream come true.
"I always wanted to study abroad ... my whole life I've always wanted to do that," she said. "It just seemed really cool. I've always been interested in other cultures and learning how different people across the world live."
Williams, who plans to go nursing school after graduation, said she didn't get too risky when it came to eating meals.
"You can go get pretty much anything that you can get in the United States," she said.
Williams said she and the students saw a few unusual choices at certain meals, including crocodile meat. But generally speaking, she didn't go for any Survivor-type tactics: "I didn't eat any bugs," she said. "No way."
Williams said one of the most astonishing things about her trip was seeing the opposite ends of the economic scale. She said she quickly realized that there are essentially two completely different factions -- those who live in luxury and those who live in poverty -- in South Africa. The groups are separated by only a few miles but are permanently divided.
"There is such disparity in South Africa," she said. "I saw two totally different worlds, even though I was in the same country.
"There were parts of the trip where I was in the wealthy culture, and I felt like I was in the United States. ... But we also went to a community that had no electricity -- no lights, no plumbing, no anything. So it's interesting that I got to see that compared to the United States, but it's also interesting that i got to see it compared to [some others in] the country itself."
Williams said she and other students spent the first few days of the trip like normal tourists, going site-seeing and soaking up the scenery.
"Anytime we did anything outdoors, the views are just beautiful," she said. "The landscape is just gorgeous. We hiked Devil's Peak, I would say that was one of the highlights of the trip. Just seeing the whole city from the top of the mountain -- I would say that was probably one of the best moments of my life."
But it wasn't just the landscape that the students got to see. They gained a unique vantage point of the culture, too.
They spent roughly six hours a day working in the local hospitals, and then went to classes in the late afternoon that were held in a small room in the children's hospital.
It was during those days that Williams said she gained the most.
"I met some many amazing people over there," she said, "and I am trying to bring that love and that care to my friends and family back home."
And those things mean more to her than anything that fits in a duffle bag.