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A South African students teaches Alex Sopata to count to 10 in Afrikaans.

A South African students teaches Alex Sopata to count to 10 in Afrikaans.

For two weeks during the winter break in January, eight University of Missouri engineering students traveled to South Africa on a college-sponsored study abroad trip, led by Marty Walker, engineering’s director of administrative services. In addition to visiting Nelson Mandela’s prison on Robben Island, a trip to Kruger National Park, a tour of the massive Kusile coal-fired power plant construction site, soaking up traditions of a different culture and having a little fun on their own, this study abroad group also presented a four-day engineering summer camp for students at Bellville South High School in Cape Town.

“The students come up with the projects for the camp,” said Walker. “They take turns explaining the principles behind their projects and lead teams of high schoolers to accomplish the challenge.

“The ability to teach, to transfer information, is an innate and developing skill for these students,” Walker added. “They didn’t think they could do it and they feel really good about it when they do.”

What follows are excerpts of observations about life in another country — daily reflections from the pages of four student journals, with their permission.

DAY 1: Arrival in Cape Town

Alexis (Ali) Planells, bioengineering sophomore: “[On the trip from the airport to the apartments] ‘Houses’ were built out of scrap metal, wood, bricks and any materials that the families could gather.

“There would be shanties not even a mile away from huge, developed and well-gated communities.”

DAY 2: Starke-Conde Winery and Cape Point

Tyler Garrett and Pat McHugh explore the shoreline in Cape Town, South Africa.

Tyler Garrett and Pat McHugh explore the shoreline in Cape Town, South Africa.

Plannels: As we pulled up [to the winery] I thought it was the most gorgeous place I’d ever seen in my entire life. The mountains looked like they were painted in the background as we sat next to a pond with fields and trees surrounding us.”

Rob Williams, mechanical and aerospace engineering junior: The wind [at the Cape] was very strong, but the views were breathtaking, particularly looking past the city with its lights, and into the darkness of the ocean. I particularly like how the clouds seem to roll off the top of the mountains, but never actually come down into the city.

DAY 3: Visit to University of Western Cape

Matt Stieglitz, civil engineering freshman: “When Gerard [Filies, Western Cape University liaison] began explaining the importance of what we were doing with the highschoolers at Bellville South, that’s when it hit me. …I was not only teaching them engineering concepts, but also teaching them that they can achieve great things.”

DAY 4: Engineering Summer Camp

Tyler Garrett plays soccer with South African students during a break in classes.

Tyler Garrett plays soccer with South African students during a break in classes.

Williams: “Kit [Nelson, a civil engineering junior] and I gave our presentations first on the aluminum foil boat… The ‘learners,’ as students are called here, are extremely attentive and interested in the projects.”

Stieglitz: “With only a few pointers, my group designed and built a boat that looked very good and that I thought would hold a lot of pennies. To top off their outstanding boat, they made a small human figurine out of a piece of a pipe cleaner, named it Nemo … and attached it to their boat. When their boat was done, I realized that these high schoolers were really no different from me even though we come from totally different backgrounds.”

Alexandra (Alex) Sopata, chemical engineering sophomore: “A bunch of us played soccer with the kids and they were very skilled players! Also during recess, I learned to count to 10 in Afrikaans, which I thought was pretty neat.”

DAY 5: Engineering Summer Camp

Alex Sopata and Pat McHugh talk with Bellview South students about a project to disassemble and then reassemble disposable cameras.

Alex Sopata and Pat McHugh talk with Bellview South students about a project to disassemble and then reassemble disposable cameras.

Sopata: “Ali and Matt were first to present their projects today. They had each group build a prosthetic leg, and once again, my group of Mad Scientists came up with an elaborate design. This time, however, their design paid off. Each group built a pretty convincing leg, and each leg could kick a soccer ball, bend at the knee and fit a pant leg, but my group had the sturdiest and more mobile design.”

Williams: “At lunch today, I asked the group of guys [learners], the ‘what gang’ as they call themselves, if they had jobs. In the U.S., a high school student might work for minimum wage doing something menial and would likely not be too terribly excited to talk about it. These guys were very proud. One worked at a fish market in Cape Town, cutting up and sorting the catch as it’s brought in during the day.”

DAY 6: Graduation Day

Mizzou Engineering study abroad students pose with students from Bellville South, back row from left are MU Students Brendan Alvey, Tyler Garrett, Alexandra Sopata, Pat McHugh, Katherine Nelson, Alexis Planells, Matthew Stieglitz and Robert Williams. At far left is Bellview South coordinator and teacher Howard Gallant and Marty Walker, MU Engineering’s trip leader is at far right.

Mizzou Engineering study abroad students pose with students from Bellville South, back row from left are MU Students Brendan Alvey, Tyler Garrett, Alexandra Sopata, Pat McHugh, Katherine Nelson, Alexis Planells, Matthew Stieglitz and Robert Williams. At far left is Bellview South coordinator and teacher Howard Gallant and Marty Walker, MU Engineering’s trip leader is at far right.

Planells: “Each learner that I had gotten to know was so driven, determined and ridiculously smart. One girl seemed very quiet when she talked to me in the beginning, but she was truly the mastermind behind my group. She was a leader, and the other girls looked up to her. She had a plan … to become a chemical engineer. She has more of a path than me, and it really inspired me to come back to Mizzou and find my passion in engineering and just run with it.”

DAY 7: Table Top Mountains and the Cape of Good Hope

Sopota: “After we had our fill of seeing penguins, we got back in the van and drove to the Cape of Good Hope. On the way we stopped to eat at an ostrich farm. I had tasted ostrich before … so I ordered the ostrich salad. It was not what I expected it to be like. It was a few leaves in the center of the plate with pieces of ostrich meat around the side soaked in vinegar.”

Planells: “Traveling to the Cape of Good Hope was the day I hadn’t stopped talking about since the second I agreed to go on this trip.

“The New York Times came out with an article saying it was the number one place that you have to visit in 2014.

“…we walked to the famous most southern point in Africa to the top of the Cape. I just stood there looking out into the water, overwhelmed with emotion at the spectacular view.”

DAY 8: Travel to Cape Town

Planells: “[after dinner] the rest of the night was relaxing, playing cards like we did every night after that.

DAY 9: Depart for Kruger and Night Safari

Williams: “I’ve really enjoyed this leg of the trip so far, just being outside and out of the cities has been great. This weather makes me wish I had my fishing pole. I’m sure these rivers and cricks have some great fish, as long as you don’t get killed by something bigger than you.”

DAYS 10 & 11: Kruger National Park

Engineering student Katherine Nelson surveys the wares in a South African market.

Engineering student Katherine “Kit” Nelson, a junior in civil engineering, surveys the wares in a South African market.

Planells: “… I am not the biggest animal person, but I surprisingly really enjoyed driving around Kruger. It was a long drive … to the National Park, but upon arrival, we saw so many different animals that were so close to us. We saw rhinos, impalas, elephants and giraffes and they were only a few feet away from our car.”

DAY 12: Kusile Power Station

Stieglitz: “We did a safety briefing, then Jerry [Widmer, a 1992 mechanical engineering graduate working as a manger for Black & Veatch] took us on a tour around the construction site.

“It was impressive to walk around this construction site and see just how big this power plant was going to be.

“As we were walking around the site, I began thinking about how cool it would be to work on this construction job.

“At the power plant, my choice to major in civil engineering became reassured. I liked the tour and stuff Jerry talked abut so much that I knew I had chosen the right major.”

DAY 13: Mandala House

Planells: We later headed to Soweto where Nelson Mandela’s childhood house was restored into a museum. The entire home that housed at least ten people to sleep [was] maybe the size of my bedroom and closet combined. The kitchen was an indent in the wall [with] just enough room for a stove.”

Williams: “[Tonight’s] menu included some of the game that we saw up in Kruger. A few people in the group ordered Kudu steaks, for example. I opted for the oxtail soup and it was incredible. The whole meal was great, especially as Jerry from Black & Veatch was able to join us. I learned a bit more about what life really is like for an American from Missouri living and working in South Africa.”

DAY 14: Headed home

Williams: “One of the incredible things about this trip was coming so close to seven other people that I barely knew just three weeks ago. Some I may not spend much time with again and others, I’m sure I will, but I am happy to call all of them friends now.”

Stieglitz: “The trip confirmed my thoughts about being a civil engineer and what I want to do when I graduate. It also made me want to do something bigger in the world, something involved with charity work and helping people.”

Photos courtesy of Marty Walker and Tyler Garrett.