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Seeing the World Through a Different Lens

Diego Abeloos

For 14 Cal Poly students, the first days of summer break didn’t include lazy afternoons at the beach or time spent reconnecting with old friends. Instead, they embarked on an international service learning experience they won’t forget anytime soon.

Through the Center for Service in Action’s Alternative Breaks program, the students and four Cal Poly staff members traveled to Cape town, South Africa to assist Film School Africa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping some the area’s poorest students gain the skills needed to succeed in the country’s bustling film industry.

For students like second-year business major Tori Hemphill, the trip afforded her the opportunity to experience the world through the eyes of local students and residents.

“It was awesome to collaborate not only with Cal Poly students from different backgrounds, but also with college students from South Africa,” said Hemphill, who noted that the trip has since inspired her to work with San Luis Obispo youth programs through the Center for Service in Action. “It was really cool to see how students raised in different environments could come together, laugh and share, and work together toward one common goal.”

Cal Poly students helping build a film school for underprivileged students in Cape Town.

For 10 days, the group helped Film School Africa prepare one of its three sites for use by both its students and a live-in site coordinator. Tasks included building a patio, painting and stuccoing three buildings, setting up a computer lab and clearing debris from the site, located in an impoverished area of Cape Town known as The Strand.

Some members of the traveling group also led Film School Africa students in filming a short documentary film on the evolution of The Strand, using 360-degree virtual reality cameras on loan from Cal Poly. The documentary is currently in production.

Cal Poly student Caitlyn Canterbury added that her time in Cape Town opened her eyes to some of the disparate ways of life for the city’s poor and affluent residents.

“Being able to see first-hand the immensity of the poverty, the courage of the people who live in these conditions, and the beauty that is Cape Town was extremely eye opening and a little bit overwhelming,” she said. “The distinction between rich and poor was so apparent. We’d drive past a massive mansion connected to a vineyard, and two seconds later, we’d pass a township with 40,000 people living in one square mile.”

Those reflections and experiences are precisely why the Alternative Breaks Program exists, according to Center for Service in Action Senior Coordinator Bradley Kyker.

The program organizes three trips each academic year to provide students with the opportunity to give back, explore their privilege and gain cultural knowledge. The summer trip to Cape Town was the third international service learning trip since the program started more than a decade ago.

“When the students saw the abject poverty in The Strand, it was pretty impactful,” said Kyker. “There was a lot of reflection by the students, who sometimes wondered why people with so little could be so joyful and welcoming to them.”

Canterbury, meanwhile, noted that students can grow from experiences like hers.

“I certainly believe that it would be immensely beneficial for all students to have an experience like this one,” she said, “because you learn so much that you wouldn’t be able to learn in a classroom.”

Alternative Breaks is again offering three service trips for the 2017-18 academic year: New Orleans, Philadelphia and an international destination pending university approval.

For more information about the Center for Service in Action, visit

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