Planet Duke: South Africa: Immersed in History

As one of the faculty leaders of the university’s DukeEngage program in Cape Town, William Chafe has seen the profound effect being in South Africa can have on undergrads. But he often felt the service- based trips barely scratched the surface of the country’s deep racial and cultural history.

Enter Duke Immerse, a new semester-long program that marries the foreign experience of a DukeEngage trip with the intensive curricular style of a Focus program. Last fall, Chafe, the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of history and a noted author on gender and racial issues, led one of two pilot Duke Immerse programs, a four-course track that compared modern civil rights movements in the U.S. and South Africa, culminating in a three-week study trip through the African nation.

“It was the most intellectually stimulating and rewarding teaching in my forty years [of teaching],” says Chafe.

Twelve students made the trip, along with Chafe and visiting assistant professor Karin Shapiro, a historian of U.S. and South African politics. The students met with activists and leaders around the country, from Johannesburg to the Drakensburg Mountains to KwaZulu-Natal to Cape Town, visiting iconic sites such as the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park.

Immersion experience: Students visit the site of Nelson Mandela's primary school.

The academic focus and the powerful group dynamic among the travelers made the experience fundamentally different from other study-abroad trips, Chafe says. “It gave everyone an amazing sense of the reality of what the period was all about. It had a transformative effect on people’s minds and their vision of the world.”


At a Glance

Current students who were born in South Africa: 9

South African nationals working at Duke: 20

Alumni living in South Africa: 8

Number of students who traveled to South Africa with university programs in 2011: 105


Key Duke connections:

Semester-long Duke in South Africa study-abroad program on savanna ecology, based in Kruger National Park

DukeEngage programs in Cape Town and Durban

"Global Health Issues in South Africa," a summer course launched in 2011, integrates classroom and field study

Duke Corporate Education has provided executive education to clients such as Standard Bank, Anglo Platinum, and Rand Merchant Bank

The divinity school offers field studies in South Africa and has a partnership with the Methodist Church of Southern Africa to facilitate ministry in the country

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