By Stacey Becker
Courtesy of TH MEDIA
Lynne Niznik was changed forever in a poor South Africa province, where she witnessed the depths of poverty and heights of a desire to learn.
The Clarke University associate professor of history and political science returned to teaching U.S. students last month, one year after she taught life skills at the University of Limpopo's Turfloop campus in the Limpopo province of South Africa. Many of the students live in extreme poverty.
"They opened their hearts to me, and I opened my heart to them, and I will never be the same person again," Niznik said, softly.
She chose to teach rural South African students on a Fulbright scholarship because of the positive interactions she had with rural, at-risk Clarke students.
Niznik assumed she would be able to "jump right back into life" on Clarke's campus. She was wrong.
"There is certainly a part of me that I left in South Africa, and there's a part of my students from South Africa that's in my heart and will always be there," Niznik said.
It's hard for her not to think about those students who were similar in some ways to her Clarke students.
"What is the same is the spirit and openheartedness and the desire to do well and to be good people," Niznik said. "I found that their academic abilities were very strong."
The largest difference was the economic situation of students in Limpopo.
"Most of them don't have any place to live, they don't have any money for food and they don't have money for pencils or papers or any of the supplies they need," Niznik said. Children from the 13 tribes near the institution were told that the only way they could escape poverty was to attend university.
Niznik taught 470 students life skills such as self-knowledge and critical thinking.
"You listen to them, you find out what they're thinking about and you show them you really do care about them and their futures," she said. "It doesn't matter if you're in Limpopo or in Dubuque. They need somebody to care about them and their holistic well-being."
Plans to stay in Limpopo for two years changed when some officials left and Niznik's safety was at risk. Cutting short her stay, she returned to the U.S. in May.
"There are gangs all around the perimeter of the campus, and they seemed to be made up of disgruntled young people who did not make it to university. If you go outside those gates, you're at the mercy of the gangs," Niznik said. "During the period I was there, three girls died and the rest of them are scared to death they're going to be the next one."
Joan Lingen, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Clarke, said Niznik brought what she learned from Clarke students to Limpopo and vice versa. "She proved that she could do it," Lingen said. "She came home a different person."