Katharina Obser Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar 2008-2009 First Report I arrived in Johannesburg on January 26, 2009, almost two years exactly since I began the Ambassadorial scholarship application process. After having lived in Washington, DC for three years, working with asylum seekers in the United States, I decided to pursue studies in refugee and migration issues abroad. The University of the Witwatersrand, where I am pursuing my masters degree this year, has one of the best programs in the world on forced migration and Johannesburg, its host city, faces a dizzying number of migration-related issues. Before leaving for South Africa, I’d been in touch with my sponsor Rotary club for the duration of my application and preparation for going abroad. Once I’d been granted the scholarship, I attended an orientation in April 2007 in Pittsburgh for outgoing scholars, where various Rotarians and previous scholars presented thoughts on how to prepare for the scholarship year. It was here that I got a better sense of what would be expected of me as a scholar, student, and representative of Rotary International. Shortly after this, I attended my sponsor district’s 2007 district conference. This not only allowed me to meet a number of Rotarians in my district, including the current, past, and future district governors, it also gave me a chance to meet and become friends with my district’s previous Ambassadorial scholar, who provided me with invaluable advice for the upcoming year. The conference further was a great opportunity to learn more about my home district’s projects and to learn the values of Rotary. Prior to leaving, I met with my sponsor Rotary club and presented one last time, as well as gave a presentation at a Rotary International Foundation fundraiser a few days before my departure. This last event was particularly inspiring, as I met former Ambassadorial scholars from several years ago, all of whom had not only completed amazing years in their scholarship, but had gone on to use the knowledge and skills gained during their scholarship in the work they are doing now. My sponsor Rotarian, Lorrie McVey, and I had a final lunch, and a few days later I left Michigan. I was greeted at O.R. Tambo International Airport by my host Rotarians, Peter and Lynne Ward of Blackheath Rotary Club in District 9300. Both Lynne and Peter are Assistant Governors, and my first week here was a combination of getting to know the country, getting to know District 9300, and happily not feeling too overwhelmed with being in a new place. Lynne and Peter immediately made me feel at home, including through hosting a welcome “Braai” (South African barbeque) the weekend after my arrival. Here I had a chance to meet other Ambassadorial scholars in District 9300, both from this year as well as a scholar from last year who had kindly provided a lot of insight into preparing me for a year in Jo’burg and at Wits. I settled into and registered with the university within the following week. I am studying for a Masters degree in the Forced Migration Studies Programme, which in addition to being an academic program also does quite a bit of consultative and other research. The program is amazingly diverse. Approximately fifteen postgraduate students who all come from different backgrounds, countries, and experience levels met and worked together through a week-long orientation introducing us to the program. As a Masters by Coursework and Research Report student, I am taking two courses this term and will take a third course next term. The rest of my time is spent learning and preparing a masters thesis topic, which will be researched and written later this year. I’ve also taken on additional work in preparing background materials for a conference on child migrants to be hosted by the FMSP in May 2009. This is especially exciting because it allows me to work closely with students and professors in my program on a topic that I will likely study more deeply for my research report. When not researching and studying, I have been able to take advantage of a number of opportunities to explore Johannesburg as well as present to and meet with Rotary clubs. In my first week, I was able to visit a local Salvation Army senior citizens’ home that RC Blackheath is helping to remodel. I attended my own club’s meeting as well as a meeting in Soweto, located in the area that under Apartheid was one of the most visible townships of the anti-Apartheid movement. I also met with members of the Zone’s P.R. committee; in early February I attended the Rotary P.R. Expose, an all-day long event focused on improving Rotary’s access to news media and press exposure. Perhaps a highlight of my Rotary activities here has been to attend the lovely orientation that was hosted for all Rotary Ambassadorial scholars, both incoming and outgoing, in Cape Town. For one very long weekend, all of the Ambassadorial scholars from Johannesburg flew to a new city and were able to not only learn more about the elements of our scholarship year, but also discovered the city through hiking, good food, working at a Rotary-sponsored carnival, and racing dragon boats. It was an amazing time in which to meet so many other scholars. Since returning to Johannesburg from this experience, I have presented to both my own club and to RC Boksburg, and also discussed my background and experiences at a cocktail party that was generously hosted for the five scholars in Johannesburg to facilitate meeting everyone’s host counselors as well as the current and incoming district governors. The cocktail party was a wonderful opportunity to again learn more about Rotary’s work in the district while meeting informally with Rotarians. I have at least three more presentations planned in the next month, including to RC Johannesburg, the first Rotary club in Africa. Furthermore, three of the other scholars in Johannesburg and I have begun to plan a service project. Many of us are runners and were excited to learn about the Soweto Marathon that takes place on November 1. As mentioned above, Soweto is an area of incredible historical importance, and the prospect of running a marathon in this former township was thrilling. We quickly decided to use this opportunity to create a service project, and will work together over the upcoming months to not only train for a marathon, but to further raise funds for various causes in the area, both Soweto and/or Rotary-related. Lastly, I’ve managed to explore the area in a non-Rotary context as well (save that it’s often together with other Ambassadorial scholars). Besides going to Cape Town, I’ve visited the Cradle of Humankind area outside of Johannesburg as well as the nearby Krugersdorp Game Reserve. I’ve gotten “out of the country” by traveling to Lesotho (landlocked deep inside South Africa), and most recently spent a week traveling to Botswana and Zambia. In Botswana we were able to visit two Ambassadorial scholars we’d met at the orientation in Cape Town. Even when on our own, Rotary inevitably enters our lives, reminding us yet again how wonderful it is to have this support network. It has been an overwhelming, fast, and wonderful first two months. I’m enjoying my time here and am so grateful for the opportunity to study and live here. I look forward to the remaining months, fearing only that they will go much, much too quickly.
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