Living the Life of a Rockefeller… Fellow

Posted: 22 December by Mary Boggs in Athletes, Harvard
Tags: , ,

As the fall semester comes to a close, many undergraduates find out if they were chosen as recipient of many fellowships or graduate scholarships that are available on their campuses. A few years ago, HepsTrack provided an account of all the track and field alumni who had received the Rhodes Scholarship. However, many other fellowships available for undergraduates whose focus is to improve life in either local or international communities.

In 2005 Harvard’s Brittan Smith ’09 — an All-Ivy long jumper — received the Michael Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship, awarding her $18,000 for the purpose of meaningful travel for one year following graduation. Smith opted to spend that year in South Africa teaching photojournalism to local high school students, blogging her experience on her Ubuntu blog. Her photos working with the Thandanani Children’s Foundation won honorable mention for the Activism in Action Award.

She has since returned to California, beginning a job at Google while planning for her upcoming wedding. And yet, she was able to find time in her busy schedule to answer some quick questions.

How would you best summarize what you did in South Africa?

I went to South Africa on a Rockefeller Fellowship from Harvard. I spent most of my time doing community development work in rural townships of the Umsunduzi district of KwaZulu-Natal. During the Christmas/New Year holidays I volunteered at an orphanage. During my time there I created a program called the Umhlaba Wami Photography Workshops, in which I taught a group of high school students basic photography, life skills, and English language — then every couple weeks the students were released with a disposable camera in which they were able to document their day-to-day lives and find a new medium to tell their stories.

On a more adventurous note, I also took this time to go hiking, snorkeling, scuba diving, sand boarding, elephant riding, lion walking, sky diving and conquering the world’s highest bungy jump. Apparently I am quite the thrill seeker?

How did you decide the focus for your fellowship?

I studied sociology at Harvard, and a lot of my focus was on race, poverty and education. It all seemed to tie together in South Africa, as I could see it was a place that had issues in all of these areas. It not only was a place where I knew I could lend a hand, but also somewhere where I learned a lot about the people there and myself.

What influenced you to teach photography and photojournalism? Do you have a photography background?

The only photography background I have is that of taking random photos at events with my friends. Unfortunately, I have yet to do any formal training. But, I have always loved and been fascinated by photography — the ability to catch a single moment and keep it forever is truly amazing to me. I love photography because it enables you to find creativity and beauty in what surrounds you; I love photojournalism because it allows you to capture a single moment in time and keep it for yourself or share with whomever you please. With philanthropic photojournalism, you are able to spread awareness of the world’s circumstances through your lens.

You commented in one of your earliest blog entries that you were both terrified and excited about learning Zulu, which you originally described as “a clicking language very different from English.” How did it go?

Oh Zulu. Well, I can say quite a few things — at least enough to impress people at a party! Kidding. But in reality, I did learn quite a lot but unfortunately never became fluent. I still find myself saying Zulu words every once in a while in everyday life here in California, which confuses people.

What aspects of your college experience were you able to draw from to help you assimilate and teach in the South African community?

Throughout high school and college I gained confidence in myself and my abilities. If I was determined to do something, I would often be able to work through it until I got it done. I had to be strong-willed. That was something that was incredibly useful in South Africa — I literally had no room for weakness [although I experienced it a lot while I was there]. My studies in college gave my heart a good foundation and desire for my work. My extracurricular activities in college taught me how to be a leader and also taught me not to dwell on my failures, because you don’t have time to dwell if you want to achieve something. You just try harder next time.

What is one of your favorite memories from teaching the students at one of your workshops?

My favorite memory is actually the day that they saw their work exhibited at the Natal Museum. I rented a taxi bus to pick them up after school and they had all dressed up in their best uniforms. They were laughing and screaming as we left their community and drove onto the paved road of “the city.” When they walked into the museum and saw their exhibit, they were actually screaming and jumping up and down, pointing to their photos and yelling, “This is mine! This is mine!” They had never seen their work hung up like that before and, as people started coming in to look at their work along with a high-profile newspaper editor, they happily basked in the glow of their successes. (Click here for photos). I was so proud of them, but best of all — they were proud of themselves.

What was track and field like in South Africa?

Track and field, or “Athletics” rather, is both very similar and not similar at all to what I experienced in the United States. First, the fan base for track and field is not nearly as strong as it is for soccer or rugby, but people start running track at a very young age if they have the facilities to do so [facilities meaning an open space of any kind]. Despite their early start, South African track and field is not very strong compared to American standards and it is hard to get people to participate unless you are in a well-sponsored region such as Johannesburg or Cape Town.

I actually competed while in South Africa, just to give myself something I recognized and knew in a country where everything else was foreign. I asked my mom to mail my spikes! I ended up practicing with a team of mainly four people — me and three guys. Many of the girls thought muscle was ugly and didn’t last long on the team. Some days I played the role of teammate, coach and athletic trainer because people would ask for my “American university athletics expertise.” I realized early on that most of the distance runners wore no shoes when practicing or competing. Sometimes you would see sprinters running with no shoes. I practiced by running around a rugby field at the University of KwaZulu Natal, whose club I competed under. At the end of the season I was the KwaZulu Natal provincial long jump champion [hahaha!], and went on to compete at the South African Nationals. That was a really fun/funny experience.

Now that you’re back in the States, do you see yourself as a changed woman?

Yes and no. Yes as in I feel I had to mature far faster than the average 22-year old while on that trip. My life went from the fairly easy life of a college student to living day to day trying to make sure I was keeping myself safe and being immersed in a very steep learning curve to assimilate better with the culture there. As an extrovert, I was initially very lonely by all the time I spent by myself [wasn’t safe to go out after sunset], but during this time I was able to reflect and I learned a lot about myself. I became more independent. I understood what basic necessities were needed in life. By the end of my trip, I felt I had packed 20 years worth of life experience into one year.

And no I am not a changed woman, as in I still get excited over little things and I am still a huge goofball with my friends. In that respect — I still act like a child!

What advise could you provide to current undergrads about deciding whether or not a fellowship is right for them?

As a track athlete, I never had the opportunity to study abroad. I saw a fellowship as an opportunity to not only spend time abroad and to learn about a different culture, but also my specific fellowship was not an academic setting, so everything I learned was organic. If you are finishing school, but don’t quite feel that you have done everything you can with these last four years, and have a deep passion for something that can be accomplished by a fellowship, go for it. Be it a fellowship that ships you half-way around the world or gives you the opportunity to start something new in your hometown, if you have a desire for it, do it.

The video below was comprised of images taken by Brittan:

Editor’s note: loves these stories — your stories. If you know of intriguing tale of a Heps runner, click here and let us know.


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