Eliza Shirazi ‘13

Studying Abroad in South Africa

By Avery Hennigar ‘15

Photo: Eliza Shirazi in South Africa

For Eliza Shirazi, a senior Public Health major, studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa was a new and exciting experience. In deciding where to study abroad for the spring 2012 semester, Eliza chose Cape Town because it presented an opportunity that she was unlikely to have again for the rest of her life.

Eliza studied abroad through the Interstudy program, which she found through the International Programs Office. In deciding to travel with a program, Eliza ensured herself that she would have a strong support system, which eased a lot of the anxieties she felt about her semester abroad. Through Interstudy she was greeted at the airport, had an orientation upon arrival in Cape Town, and had access to peer mentors who lived close to where she would be staying if she ever had any issues or needed resources. Eliza also was supported financially through the help of the Ron Ansin Scholarship, which the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS) awarded to Eliza (a double major in Communication).

Eliza explained many of the challenges she faced upon going to South Africa for a semester. Initially, she had to deal with the culture shock, particularly when she saw the extreme poverty found in the Cape Town slums (called townships). Even something as basic as cooking a meal proved challenging due to issues with basic utilities, and she had to adjust to living in an area with a much higher petty crime rate than she was used to compared to the U.S. A bustling, modern city of nearly 4 million people, Cape Town is strikingly beautiful and presented a variety of rich cultural experiences, and Eliza noticed that the people she met there – even among the townships – were among the happiest and most optimistic people she had ever met.

Eliza’s work with a non-profit called the Earthchild Project impacted her strongly. Along with the organization’s small staff, Eliza traveled to the townships in Cape Town and taught children and young adults about health and exercise. As a popular kickboxing teacher here at UMass Amherst, Eliza was able to incorporate her love for activity into these visits. She taught yoga classes to children aged six to sixteen and admits she was surprised at how many of these children already made yoga a daily practice. This was an experience that truly expanded Eliza’s knowledge and familiarity with the public health field.

Photo: Eliza Shirazi on a safari in Africa

It made a big difference to “Not come in as a doctor, but to be a real person with them, and to help them feel happy and love themselves.” When asked how else her study abroad experience related to her studies of public health, Eliza explained that almost everything she did in Cape Town dealt with public health issues.

“South Africa is very proactive in explaining public health issues and getting the message out to the people to get tested for HIV/AIDS and to know if you are at risk,” she said. “There were always people passing out pamphlets with public health information that addressed the various health concerns in Cape Town.”

When asked if she had any advice for students thinking about studying abroad, Eliza responded emphatically, “Go somewhere you think you’ll never go again. It can be intimidating, but it is worthwhile to go through [the experience]. You will learn to grow up and mature and become more independent and confident both academically and socially.”

Eliza notes that the School of Public Health and Health Sciences (SPHHS) has helped her to reach her goals “in every way possible.” The SPHHS faculty has provided support and encouragement, and pushed her to get more involved and to study abroad in the first place. Eliza plans to incorporate her dual interests in public health and communication in her future career, ideally in patient navigation or events and development for a hospital in the Boston area. No matter what path her career might take after graduation, she’s certain she’ll be pursuing her passion for fitness and wellness.