If you ask students what country their Duke program will take them to, there's a good chance they will say South Africa. But why is it such an epicenter for abroad experiences?

Duke leads several programs in South Africa, including DukeEngage and DukeImmerse, as well as a study-abroad summer and semester program. A popular destination among students, South Africa offers opportunities to learn about topics such as social justice and business management, participate in community service and become more culturally aware, all without a language barrier.

William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin professor emeritus of history and leader of one of the DukeEngage programs in Cape Town, South Africa, noted that the country's natural beauty and similarities to the U.S. make it a popular destination.

“[South Africa] is very similar to the U.S. in some respects, [such as] the degree to which racism is a big factor even though South Africa is over 70 percent black African and we are only about 11 percent black American," Chafe said. "There are the same issues in which politics is involved and the same degree of inequality economically in which only the top one or two percent control so much more of the income."

There are currently two DukeEngage programs in South Africa. The one in Cape Town lets students assist various non-governmental organizations that work on a variety of issues including preventing the spread of AIDS, helping men learn more about sexual assault and women's empowerment. DukeEngage Durban focuses on organizations that aim to improve the economic, environmental and educational conditions for people in Wentworth, a community created due to the country's apartheid policies.

Chafe heads a DukeImmerse program with Karin Shapiro, associate professor of the practice of African and African American Studies. Centered around the anti-Apartheid struggle, students take classes on America's Civil Rights Movement and South African history in order to compare the countries.

Both Chafe and Shapiro explained that South Africa is a great location for students to learn about social justice. Shapiro noted that studying South Africa can help students understand the United States through a different perspective.

“Scholars have drawn parallels between the two societies or looked to one to better understand the other," Shapiro said. "It’s another way to begin to understand what is going on in America or it’s another way to put these societies side by side and try to understand the dynamics in both South Africa and America.”

Chafe noted that although a key component of his DukeEngage program is community service, the students are the ones getting more out of it.

“We all recognize right away that we are gaining more than anyone else in this program," Chafe said. "We are trying to help out and we do bring our skills to our work… but we are the ones who are learning, about ourselves and about the world."

Sophomore Sabriyya Pate, who participated in DukeEngage Cape Town and is also a columnist for The Chronicle, said that she chose to travel to South Africa because of the country's unique history and the parallels that can be drawn between it and the U.S. 

She noted that stereotypes about Africa may be the reason so many programs are based there. 

"DukeEngage was created for service, and a problematic mentality exists that naturally Africa is the place for volunteer work," she said. 

Pate noted that although this mentality pervades the DukeEngage candidate pool, it does not cancel out the beneficial work that is done in South Africa by Duke students. 

Some students even visit South Africa through programs outside of Duke.

Junior Whitney Hazard studied and interned in South Africa through iXperience, which is not affiliated with Duke but recruits a number of Duke students every year. For the first four weeks, Hazard completed courses in product management and worked on a mobile application to help prevent sexual assault. Then, she interned in product management at Groupon in Cape Town for another four weeks. Hazard described her experiences as a great way to open up opportunities for herself in her future career.

“Cape Town is a city with a lot going on," Hazard said. "There is a lot of business and technology, but it’s on the rise. It also a little bit easier for American students to get their foot in the door at these big companies in Cape Town than it would be in other cities. For example, I would not have been able to work for Groupon in the U.S. unless I had done a full summer internship at Groupon, so being in Cape Town allows for little more flexibility.”

Hazard also said she believes she became more culturally aware as a person, explaining how her program also emphasized the cultural education aspect of being abroad.

“[South Africa] is such a unique place culturally," Hazard said. "It is incredibly diverse, and while it has a troubled history with race and other issues, South Africa makes a more conscious effort than the U.S. to overcome their history and issues surrounding race."