This is the third part of a series about the Gill St. Bernard’s School unit, a travel and experiential learning program that the school founded in the early 1970s.
What better way to learn about South Africa—both its vibrant culture and apartheid history—than to spend seven days living on the peninsula of Cape Town? That is just what a group of 19 Gill St. Bernard’s students, along with three teachers, did as part of a unit course this past spring. During the trip, they mingled with high school students, visited the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, cooked a traditional Malayan dinner, and even learned a few phrases in Xhosa from the locals.
The excursion to South Africa marked Gill’s first on the continent. Christine Chan, who teaches AP Government at Gill and serves as the school’s international student advisor, proposed the idea. “I wasn’t sure the trip would be approved and that students would want to go,” she says. “But it ended up generating a lot of interest, and it seemed the perfect way for them to learn about the country’s history of apartheid and the current struggles with race, poverty, and AIDS.”
On the trip, students saw the effects of each first-hand. At the visit to Muizenberg High School, Gill students connected easily with their South African peers. “It was seamless. Our kids were nervous, but they got over it. They weren’t sure what to expect, but everyone said it was the best experience they ever had,” says Chan. Lila Birnberg ’17 was struck by the similarities between those students and her friends at Gill. “My buddy for the day likes the same television shows and music that I do. She even quoted Mean Girls, my favorite movie. Even though we live so far apart, we’re still so similar.”
The group also spent time at two preschools in the township of Red Hill, where they played with the children and assisted with reading and writing the alphabet. Chan said, “It was winter there, and shipping containers were used as classrooms. One kid took off his shoes, and he was wearing mittens. No socks. But even though they only had a few resources, a backpack, a reusable water bottle, they were still getting a good education.”
Later in the trip, the students paid a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. They also toured a community treatment center for HIV run by the non-government organization mothers2mothers, which offers testing, education, treatment, and support for women infected with the virus. This stop was particularly poignant for Catarina Matthews ’16, as her late grandmother, Marie Matthews, donated seed money to start mothers2mothers.
With a visit to South Africa, sight-seeing is also an important part of the agenda. The students had a chance to see African penguins on Boulders Beach and they spotted elephants, cheetahs, lions, tigers, and zebras on the Aquila Game Reserve.
For Emma Cullen ’17, this unit was the perfect mix of site-seeing, community service, and cultural immersion. “I loved it,” she says. “It made me appreciate the things I’m fortunate to have. In the townships surrounding Cape Town, people live in boxes, and when some kids go to school, that’s the only meal they get.” Another added bonus for Emma was making new high school friends on a far-away continent. “They’re following us on Instagram, and one girl posted a picture of the two of us,” she says, adding that their tour guide sent her birthday wishes over the summer.
When it came time to say “sala kakuhle,” (good-bye in Xhosa), Emma admits there were tears. “I didn’t want to leave,” she says. 
Reflecting the school’s motto, "The World is Our Classroom," the Spring Unit offers experiential learning opportunities locally, throughout the US, and internationally. Held each May, the two-week program encourages students to explore projects outside of the school’s regular academic curriculum. Although the programs vary from year to year in response to student interests and world events, every program has key factors in common.
For more than 40 years, the Spring Unit enables students to expand their knowledge and skills by applying them in new ways and through new experiences. Whether regionally or internationally, students discover connections to new environments and between their own lives and the lives of others. An essential part of GSB’s curriculum, the Spring Unit challenges students to think critically, to offer the best of themselves, and to cooperate with others in learning and doing. The Unit celebrates the educated imagination and the capacity in each person to see endless possibilities in the shared world.
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a rigorous, meaningful, and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.