In South Africa, Penn GSE interns find purpose and put theory into practice

September 21, 2022

Kelly Shiohira traveled to South Africa for a Penn GSE internship in 2012, but she stuck around for a full-time job. The organization appreciated her work so much that they offered her a permanent role, so she packed her things and moved to South Africa. She has continued to work for South African organizations ever since.

Along the way, Shiohira has kept the Penn GSE pipeline active. Over the past 12 years, she has worked with 20 interns from the International Educational Development master's program. We caught up with this year's students, Cody Costakis and Wamweni Shamambo, to hear about their enriching experiences in South Africa. They both worked at JET Education Services in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Cody Costakis 

I’ve spent three months as an international intern at JET. I chose the organization because of its close integration with on-the-ground South African education processes, as well as its work in developing African continental education frameworks. I thought the fast-paced and learning-positive environment would be a good fit for me personally and foster my growth during the internship.

During my time I’ve worked on five different projects, in addition to a conference presentation. On a typical day I research and write literature reviews that guide each project, design process models to direct data collection, and develop data collection tools. I also work in the field and do qualitative analysis. I have been encouraged by the organization's leadership to push myself into any opportunity that attracted me.

My stay in South Africa is my first experience working at a research institution, having spent the last eight years of my life teaching. It has given me an intimate view of the scope of research work, and the organization has been incredibly accommodating to me as an intern by allowing me to seek out interesting projects and engaging in meaningful work. As I move forward, I will be looking to more closely blend the experience I had at JET with my past career in teaching, whether that will be in the field of research or program implementation.

Wamweni Shamambo

I was excited to work with JET due to my regional interest in Africa and the organization’s mission of improving the quality of education through research, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. My position allowed me to engage with staff on different units, learn new skills, and gain new insight into the world of international education from a non-profit perspective.

I worked a wide range of projects, from fieldwork in Kwazulu-Natal, a province heavily impacted by the floods earlier this year, to designing a Theory of Change model for a national education-based nonprofit organization. I was able to further my research and analytical skills and at the same time build new relationships. By putting theory into practice in an organization that is doing phenomenal work, I know I am ready to take the next step in my career in the field of international educational development.

Besides my work, what made my time in South Africa worthwhile was exploring the rainbow nation. I was exposed to the reality of life that many Black people are living through in townships in Kwazulu-Natal and Gauteng province. Even after dismantling apartheid, there is still a lot of progress to be made in the country in terms of economic and social equality. However, people also need to know that the country holds a lot of beauty, from its landscapes to the diversity of people you meet on a day-to-day basis.

I encourage anyone who visits the country to dive into its history and acquaint themselves with all the country has to offer. This could include participating in a Soweto guided-tour, visiting Robben Island where Mandela was prisoned, eating local street food, drinking locally made wine at a vineyard in Stellenbosch, walking the sandy beaches in Durban, and hiking up the iconic Table Mountain to catch the magnificent views of Cape Town. There’s a lot to see and do. Proceed with caution, but don’t let fear hinder you from getting the full experience.