Finding Connection in South Africa

Joel Burt-Miller (Brandeis University) studied abroad on SIT’s South Africa: Community Health and Social Policy program in spring 2015. He was recently awarded a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. Below, he shares his story.

Joel Burt-Miller

Joel Burt-Miller

As the middle child in my immediate family, I have always found my role to be the family connector. From a young age, I found myself in spaces where I would either be the mediator between my older and younger brothers, or be the gentle reminder of important dates coming up, such as birthdays or family events. I found myself bridging gaps that existed amongst my family members. To me, life cannot exist without connection. In order to understand who I am I must first understand who and what I am connected to.

I was born and raised in the Bronx, New York, to two Jamaican immigrants to the United States. Growing up, my family history always intrigued me, and being a first-generation American, I have always wanted to learn more about the history that came before me. In many conversations with my mother and her siblings, I learned that their ancestors were indentured servants from India brought to Jamaica to work on sugar cane plantations between 1845 and 1917. On a few trips to Jamaica, I have also visited the childhood home of my mother and her siblings, which was located on one of these sugar cane plantations. I have visited Jamaica multiple times and have built a strong connection with its culture and people, but as I learned more about Jamaica, questions began to stir in my mind about what came before.

During my junior year, I was given the opportunity to study abroad in Durban, South Africa with SIT’s Community Health and Social Policy program. I lived with five homestay families, one of which was an Indian South African family. To my surprise, I learned that around the same time my forefathers went to Jamaica to work, Indians were also going to South Africa for work. Additionally, I learned that Durban currently has the highest population of Indians outside of India. Indian culture was rich in Durban and it was beautiful to get a taste of India. Although it was not my primary focus to learn about Indian culture and its people on this trip, I carried my history with me to South Africa. I was able to learn more about myself through this shared history that connected me with local South Africans.

In applying for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, I sought an opportunity to foster a connection through engagement in cross-cultural exchange. As I seek to become a physician one day working in underserved communities domestically and abroad, cultural and linguistic sensitivity are extremely important. In India, I will be teaching English to my learners, and as a doctor, I will one day be teaching medicine to my patients. As I have gotten older, I have felt a calling to step back into my role as the family connecter and reestablish a connection between my family and India, the land of my forefathers. With every generation, I feel as if that piece of my history is slowly fading away. I believe one’s history is powerful, and in this journey of life, in order to truly understand where I am going, I first have to take a moment to understand where I have come from.

Learn more about the Community Health and Social Policy program in South Africa.

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