International spotlight: Adventure in South Africa brings change, maturity

Adventure in South Africa brings change, maturity

By Katie Carroll

At first, Porter Nellans did not think he would be able to study abroad with a biology major and graduate on time. By looking more into the topic and finding he would be able to study HIV/AIDS and other public health topics in a hands-on environment abroad, he decided on a semester of study in South Africa through SIT. His spring semester in 2008 was spent pursuing his interest in human diversity and health care.

Porter Nellans studied abroad in South Africa: "I have a much broader perspective of the world, I am more open to new ideas, and I have a better understanding of how to approach my future."

“A hands on approach that you aren’t going to get here (at UST)” is what Porter found in South Africa. Some of the classes at his university involved lectures, and he also took Zulu language classes, but most of his studies were done outside of the classroom.

He had home-stays with four different families outside of Durban, South Africa. The home-stays allowed him to learn about rural settings and make community health visits with his "mama" (host mother), all while he worked to overcome the language barrier. This prepared him for his research project, which was done at Mbongolwane Hospital in Zululand.

“I wanted to have my own individual experience and challenge,” Nellans said.

This was accomplished with Porter’s research at the hospital. He was the first and only student from his university in Durban to research there. His research project allowed him to follow a young boy through his treatment of a burn beginning in Mbongolwane all the way to Durban. Porter followed this trip of full treatment for rural patients by seeing patients, sitting in with doctors, and watching surgeries.

He misses the adventure and learning about his surroundings, but he added, “the challenge of living in an entirely different culture is what I miss most.” It was difficult for him to come back to Minnesota where he would have hot water, power and an apartment that was bigger than his entire home-stay home. He had changed so much that he was scared to see his family, but now things are more comfortable.

This journey has brought him more confidence in himself and his abilities, along with greater maturity. “I think the amount I changed was the most influential part of my journey. I have a much broader perspective of the world, I am more open to new ideas, and I have a better understanding of how to approach my future,” he said.

Nellans advises students who are interested in studying abroad to go outside their comfort zones, look for a challenge, and take advantage of opportunities available.

“Make sure you are challenged because that is the way you gain the most from the experience. When you have a choice between two things, do the one that you are least likely to have the chance to do at home or ever again in your life,” he said.

For his last bit of advice, Nellans stresses the value of humor and humility:  “It is important to have a sense of humor and be able to laugh at yourself.”

After graduating in May, he plans to continue helping others around the world. He will be going to China to teach English in July. He has a nomination from the Peace Corps that he is waiting to get an invitation on, which will be sending him overseas to work for about two and a half years. After that he plans to go to graduate school for public or global health with a focus on infectious diseases. This may lead to medical school with the hopes of eventually traveling internationally as a doctor or working for the World Health Organization.

He would love to go back to South Africa, but he does not know where the rest of his journey will lead him.