Cornell University

July 27 2009

Shaping Futures

Service learning in South Africa changes student's perspective 

Susie Choi Susie Choi '10 worked in South Africa this summer with people her mentor there says are "the most disadvantaged of all people with disabilities."

Ages 20 to 50, they are blacks with disabilities and who had never been employed, said Ari Seirlis, national director of the QuadPara Association of South Africa.

The organization works to prevent spinal cord injury and promote the interests of people with mobility impairments.

Employment challenges for people with disabilities in the African nation are daunting and appear to be worsening. Between 1998 and 2006, the number of employed South Africans with disabilities dropped to 12 percent, according to a report by Fordham University's Sophie Mitra in the South African Journal of Economics.

Seirlis, in an email interview from the QuadPara headquarters in Durban, South Africa, said building confidence is an important step for job applicants.

"All of the candidates have a very low self-esteem and so this new program that Susie has been involved in developing will assist them to have a better self esteem and to be able to cope with an interview," he said.

"There have been a few of the learners … who have now become employed," Seirlis said. "We are very pleased with the success of this project and with Susie's contribution."

Susie ChoiChoi's role in the project was increasing the capacity of people to have successful job interviews. She developed a job interview simulation and trained a QuadPara Association facilitator to implement it.

"They're making progress.  It is really great to see," said Choi, in a telephone interview from her home in South Korea.

"To see how a non-governmental agency can empower people's lives... It definitely helped shape my future," said Choi, who found inspiration through the South Africans she met, some of whom cannot walk or move their hands.

"They did not see disability as an obstacle in their lives," she said.

Choi is the third ILR student in the past year to complete service learning in South Africa through an internship organized by ILR's Employment and Disability Institute, ILR International Programs and the QuadPara Association of South Africa.

"It just changed my life perspective," said Choi, who worked with a number of people who became paralyzed through gunshot wounds or traffic accidents.

In South Africa, many people ride in the backs of pick-up trucks and accidents can result in paralysis and other serious injuries, Choi said.

The South Africa experience, she said, gave her an on-the-ground look at how policies impact people and provided a comparison to the international perspective she gained during an ILR internship in 2008 at the International Labour Organization in Geneva.

A day-by-day account of Choi's South Africa internship is available online (pdf).