The Learning Abroad program in South Africa marks 25 years of educational journeys, sensational sightseeing, and one encounter with a hungry baboon.
Watch the video below to experience Rutgers University–Camden's 25th trip to South Africa.
The first time Rutgers University–Camden sophomore Tyrone King Jr. set foot on an airplane, he took a seat on an enormous jet embarking on a 16-and-a-half-hour flight from Newark, New Jersey, to South Africa. He was nervous boarding, and thought, “Oh my gosh! Should I have packed a parachute?” But once the plane was in the air, he realized, “It really just felt like a train ride.”
King, a first-generation college student from Camden who is a music major with an emphasis in music education and a minor in Spanish, traveled for the Rutgers–Camden civic engagement-oriented course “Community Service, Social Change, and Knowledge of Place in South Africa” in March. He said the trip, which included a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment, and immersive civic engagement projects with a K-8 school and women’s shelters outside of Cape Town, was transformative. “I definitely plan to go back to South Africa,” he said.
King received a Learning Abroad scholarship, which covered most of the expense of the trip. “I hadn’t thought about going to Africa, because I never thought that financially I would be able to,” he said. “I’m fortunate that I have been able to do something that my parents and my older sister were not able to do.”
King was among a group of students, faculty, and alumni who traveled to South Africa for three Learning Abroad courses that included the 10-day trip. This year’s trip marked the 25th to South Africa since Cal Maradonna, a Rutgers–Camden alumnus who was then dean of students and is now director of off-campus programs for the Rutgers School of Business–Camden, founded the long-lasting tradition. Maradonna has led the trip, which has been sponsored the School of Business–Camden every year since 1996 except for the two previous years when the pandemic prohibited travel. He developed and continues to teach “Doing Business in South Africa,” which was the foundational course for the program.
Since Maradonna launched the program, a total of 1,567 students, faculty, and alumni have made the annual journey. “I really love South Africa,” said Maradonna, who has visited South Africa at total of 40 times, and once met Nelson Mandela. “I had a great experience on my early visits. My goal became to bring as many people with me as possible to have that experience.”
The genesis of the trip dates back to 1995, soon after Maradonna had overseen opening of a new bookstore in the Rutgers–Camden Campus Center. A visiting contingency from the University of Namibia asked for help in opening their own bookstore and developing other student services. The next thing Maradonna knew, he was off to Namibia, which had gained full independence from neighboring South Africa five years before. “I didn’t know where Namibia was,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you—before that, I had never heard of Namibia.”
But soon he learned it well, spending a month there in June of 1995, and then again in October of that year, in addition to traveling in South Africa. Maradonna, who had been on a Rutgers–Camden Learning Abroad trip to Moscow in 1984, had always thought, “I would like to lead a trip.”
Maradonna organized the first Learning Abroad trip to Namibia and South Africa in the spring of 1996, building it around a sociology course. While the trip was enjoyable, it had its challenges, including one memorable afternoon near Cape Town. “We went to Cape of Good Hope, a two-hour bus ride,” he said. “We were coming back and there were all these baboons on the side of the road. Somebody in the bus opened a window, and the biggest, ugliest-looking baboon I’ve ever seen jumped on the bus. It started running up and down the aisle. People were screaming. Three women locked themselves in the bathroom.”
Maradonna said a quick-thinking student got the baboon’s attention and threw an apple out the window. “The baboon followed it out and we shut the window,” he said, adding that no one got hurt. “Half the people on the bus were crying and half were laughing. I said, ‘I am never doing this again.’”
But Maradonna, of course, would do it again—24 more times. And he plans to lead the trip again next year.
An Alumna’s Perspective
Santa Bannon-Shillea CCAS’97 was a junior on that first trip and recalls the baboon. “It was rifling through all our bags for food,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to take a picture of this if it’s the last picture I ever take.’”
In another fraught episode, Bannon-Shillea and a few other friends were in a van that got lost for part of an evening from a caravan in Etosha National Park in Namibia. They had seen a lion kill a springbok—a medium-sized antelope—and they asked the driver to slow down so they could take photographs, which led to them getting lost. She said that episode, like the baboon encounter, was frightening, but “we survived, and we have lots of really hilarious stories to tell about it.”
Bannon-Shillea, a graduate of Cherry Hill East High School, and a group of six students she made friends with on the trip adopted the nickname of “the African Queens” after her mother borrowed the title from the classic film starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart to describe them that way. “We’re all still friends to this day,” she said.
Now an art dealer living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Bannon-Shillea was a single mom at the time and had to take out a loan to make the trip, but said it was well worth it. She still owns a painting she bought a gallery in Cape Town. “I don’t know where I had the audacity to go into a gallery and buy something,” said Bannon-Shillea, who now runs her own art gallery. “That’s the first piece of original art I ever bought in my life.”
Although she has since traveled many places in the world, Bannon-Shillea often thinks about the trip and tells others about it. “I’m so glad Cal had the idea to do this,” she said. “It was life-changing for me.”
Studying abroad is something she encourages all college students to do, including many who have worked as interns for her. “I tell them they absolutely take some sort of study abroad,” she said. “It is really mind-expanding.”
A Focus on South Africa
After initial trips included both Namibia and South Africa, Maradonna trimmed the itinerary back to visit only South Africa. The Rutgers Law School added “South African Constitutional Law” to the Learning Abroad program in 2003. Rutgers Law School Co-Dean Kimberly Mutcherson has taught the course several times and traveled to South Africa with her students in March. “Teaching this course and traveling with students has been one of the highlights of my academic career,” she said. “South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution is so different from our own, and the contrast allows to me to talk to students both about the symbolic power of constitutions and the difficulty of making constitutional promises a reality.”
Mutcherson said there also are many “beyond the classroom learning” benefits. “The opportunity to travel with students and get to know them in a different setting is an incredible gift,” she said. “I remain close to several of our Rutgers Law alums who went on trips to South Africa with me and they all remember the experience with enormous fondness. I am particularly struck by one graduate who committed herself to becoming a world traveler after going to South Africa and whose adventures around the globe I have been able to follow on Instagram.”
Civic engagement courses were an early addition to the trip, and they continue today. Amanda Holloway, assistant dean of students, who has taught the South Africa civic engagement course six times, including the most recent trip, first went on the trip in 2000 when she was a Rutgers–Camden sophomore studying urban studies. At the time, Holloway, who grew up in Bellmawr, New Jersey, had never traveled beyond the East Coast of the United States. The trip had a powerful impact on her. “It developed my love for travel and learning about other cultures,” Holloway said.
She returned as a student in her senior year in 2002, and after earning a master’s degree and advancing through the ranks of staff at Rutgers–Camden, began to teach the civic engagement course, which is connected with the Department of Gender Studies. In total, counting two student trips, two trips as a staff member, and teaching the civic engagement course six times, she has gone on the trip a total of 10 times—and she plans to continue going.
Holloway loves sharing the experience with students. “The best part of leading the course is to see it through the students’ eyes and see them having a great experience,” she said. “Whether it’s developing a love for travel, or developing a love for learning about other cultures, or just developing a love for South Africa, it is always really rewarding.”
Support and Service
From the very first trip, Maradonna has imbued the journey with a spirit of giving and support for South Africans. “We all had our luggage filled with books to donate,” Bannon-Shillea said of the 1996 trip.
On every trip, attendees have been asked to bring goods to donate to schools and other organizations that help those in need. Maradonna has guided students into connecting with many merchants and makers of crafts in the towns and villages the group visits, as well as local residents. “One of the things we never wanted to do was to take a bus through a township and look out the windows,” he said. “We walk through the communities. Many there live in horrible poverty, but they are proud of what they have accomplished since apartheid ended.”
Tyrone King Jr. enjoyed the connections and purchased hand carvings of an elephant and giraffe on the recent trip. “We met some awesome people who created a lot of beautiful arts and crafts,” he said.
King also relished the opportunity to interact with students in the Klipfontein Primary School in Bonteheuwel Township, near Cape Town, which he and his classmates visited and engaged in a service project. He had the opportunity to sit in the classes and to teach a lesson. “I want to be a teacher myself,” he said. “Being able to interact with the students was really awesome.”