The University of Iowa

My future feels bright after visiting Bright Future special school

February 14th, 2018

emily with Bright Future class

On the bus ride there I was terrified while eating Pringles. I wanted to get to the schools and get the nervousness over with. 

My class of twenty-four was split up into groups of four and five and sent out to different special needs schools in the Durban area. We went there to witness the structure of the institution, the funding allocated, and talk to the faculty about their experience working there. 

I was scared of the sadness I was anticipating. South Africa is beautiful but there is so much poverty, corruption, and despair… I was ready to witness heartbreak but I wasn’t ready to see it with such a vulnerable portion of the population. 

When we got to Bright Future Special School, we were immediately taken to the principal’s office, where we went over the agenda for the day. We would take a tour, interview with the faculty, and then each of us was assigned a classroom to work in/ observe one-on-one. 

The facility was wonderful. Maybe not cosmetically, but practically - a campus for the intellectually disabled ranging from age 4-18. There were different sections for different types and levels of needs. There was an autism wing, a down-syndrome wing, a CP wing, and each wing of the facility was then broken down by the severity of the disability. Classes were comprised of all ages but set up to meet the cognitive needs of the individuals. Many of the students are orphans, and this facility is their main source of social interaction.

There was an array of life skill classes offered- sewing, cooking, workshop, gardening, nails, pottery. Students choose two skills to focus on with the hope they could use these skills to obtain a job once they graduate.

There is no failure here. 

I walked around the campus hi-fiving the kids with my horribly broken Zulu, smiling from ear to ear. 

They were being taken care of and there was a staff doing their absolute best for these kids with the limited resources they had.

After the tour and interview, I was assigned to a class of autistic children ranging in age from 7-12. We spent the day crafting and finding words in magazines to cut out for a Valentines Day collage. It was a simple task but it was so nice to get to work one-on-one with the kids, helping them find “loving” words and pictures. 

I talked one-on-one with the teacher, and we discussed her lesson plans.  She asked for advice on what crafts to do with a crowd that cannot read. I immediately started reciting crafts I did as a child and trying to come up with anything that might help.


Many of the teachers are not trained in teaching special needs students and have a limited education so they sometimes feel lost in this process. This is a direct product of what we are learning in my SIT program, Community Health and Social Policy. Without policies in place to ensure the qualification of staff and provide adequate training, individuals are thrown into specialized environments completely unprepared and it is inevitably impacting the quality of the education being offered.


It was hard to say goodbye, but I promised I would come back. 

I want to keep working with her and trying to provide creative options for engaging with these perfect and brilliant children.

I went in anticipating heartbreak and sadness, but by the end of the day, I was the happiest I’ve been since being in South Africa. The strength, drive, and hope of the students at Bright Future Special School reminded me why I am here and gave me the strength to overcome what preexisting emotions I had.


I look forward to going back and the time I am going to create there, and I’m proud to represent my strong Iowa public education heritage while doing it. 


 SIT’s goal to showcase the relationship between health, policy, and education, was well received by my peers and profoundly changed our outlook on the impact education has on quality of life. From here, I look forward to applying this knowledge to my future analysis of health policies and continuing the fight for equality and accountability.


a sign hanging at the desk of the teacher I worked one-on-one with

a sign hanging at the desk of the teacher I worked one-on-one with


a communal garden where the students learn how to grow vegetables and sustainable agricultural skills

This is a communal garden where the students learn how to grow vegetables and sustainable agricultural skills


Working on our Valentine's Day collage!! ❤

Working on our Valentine's Day collage!! ❤ 


Clay pots made by the students of which they sell at their annual fundraiser to make money for the school

Clay pots made by the students of which they sell at their annual fundraiser to make money for the school


This is a chair made out of tire and bungees that will be covered and painted! (it was quite comfy)

This is a chair made out of tire and bungees that will be covered and painted! (it was quite comfy) 


emily s

Emily Smith is a global health major at the University of Iowa. A native of Cedar Rapids, IA, and 2018 Gilman Scholarship awardee, she is spending her semester in Durban, South Africa on the SIT South Africa: Community Health and Social Policy program. 

Student blog entries posted to this International Accents page may not reflect the opinions and recommendations of UI Study Abroad and International Programs.  The blog is intended to give students a forum for free expression of thoughts and experiences abroad in a respectful space.

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