Conference calls, classrooms and reporters notebooks are being observed in a new environment for five Northern Virginia young professionals who headed to southern Africa last week to take part in a group study exchange sponsored by global non-profit Rotary International.
The group of five women will spend the next month living in the homes of different Rotary Club members and learning firsthand how their jobs are carried out in South Africa and Swaziland. They will be replacing a group of five men and women from southern Africa who have already returned home after spending the last month in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. area carrying out the same mission.
"The whole purpose [of the trip] is to promote world peace and understanding through change," said Lester Schoene, chairperson for the group study exchange program of regional Rotary Club district 7610, who helped organize the trip. "The more you know about other people, the more likely you are to want to engage in a supportive friendship with them, and these trips foster those feelings."
Gaining new cross-cultural ideas and problem-solving methods has benefited those who both come from out of the country to visit and those Americans who return, added Schoene, a Rotary Club member who several years ago led a group to New Zealand.
"The fact that we have people who have gone on these trips and they are more educated about the world as a result … and have some experience living in other cultures and countries," he said, "gives them a broader perspective of how to operate in their jobs."
THE FIVE WOMEN, chosen for their professional diversity and high-standing in their local communities, left for Africa on May 3. The group is led by a Rotary member but made up of four non-member professionals.
The trip first caught the eye of McLean Rotary Club member and group leader Lois Wilson, a Herndon resident and dentist, when she saw an opportunity to visit Africa from a professional foreign immersion aspect. Wilson, who is black, said that she was most excited about the prospect of the trip because she had always wanted to visit the continent after experiencing the civil rights movement of the United States and watching the news of apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.
"Just being able to see that and experience life there was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up," she said. "And to go, not just on a quick visit or as a tourist, but to observe life on a daily basis and live with a family, you cannot find that experience anywhere else."
In line with the objectives of the trip, Wilson will spend some of her time observing dentists from the different strata of society in South Africa along with a number of other general cultural experiences.
THE PROSPECT OF bringing new perspective towards her job as a teacher attracted Michelle Peters, a Glasgow Middle School teacher and Arlington resident.
"I’m always trying to tell my students to be risk-takers and life-long learners and what amazing opportunity to give them an example by doing," Peters said. "I hope to be able to bring a message back to my students of just how important education is and how sometimes people in this country can take that for granted."
Finding different ways to tackle community growth projects and seeing obstacles that exist in foreign countries for non-profit organizations are what Vienna resident Christina Mohr hopes to take away from her experience. Mohr, a director of marketing and communications for the Reston YMCA, is hoping to get the chance to visit other less-fortunate YMCA facilities in South Africa.
"It’s an amazing opportunity to work on building communities and experiencing a new culture," she said. "Especially given my work building communities here in the U.S. … I think this will be a very beneficial and life-changing trip."
Jessica Hartz, a Reston resident and director of programming for the Council for the Arts of Herndon, is most excited about seeing art in a part of the world that has been known for its influence on a range of types of expression.
"I’m hoping that this trip will make me more cultural aware and allow me to bring these experiences to my work in Herndon," she said.
For Edie Gross, a reporter for the Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, the trip is a way to exercise her skills in journalism to help expose others to her experiences.
"Every time we go to a new place it widens our perspectives … and I’d like to use that to give our readers an experience they might not understand otherwise," Gross said. The reporter will be filing regular columns and writing an Internet blog for the Free Lance-Star while she is gone.
EXPSOURE TO NEW ideas and the experiences in the professional operations of their foreign counterparts are exactly what the Northern Virginians should expect on their foreign exchange, according to Anya Chrissopoulos, the South African group leader who wrapped up her team’s tour of the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. area last week.
Chrissopoulos, a clinical police psychologist from Middelburg, South Africa, said that she was impressed on her trip by the amount of professional resources available to Americans and the way that community organizations function cooperatively in the United States.
Most important throughout their trip, however, was that feeling that she and all her group members experienced in that the two different cultures could benefit through sharing methods and ideas, Chrissopoulos said.
"There are a lot of things that we can share between our two communities and being open and interactive in ways like this allows us to do that," she said.