Democracy Prep alumni learn about different fossils found in Sterkfontein Caves, which is north of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Democracy Prep alumni learn about different fossils found in Sterkfontein Caves, which is north of Johannesburg, South Africa.

On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday and Mandela Day, celebrated worldwide, GothamSchools is collecting tales from New York City schools about the former president of South Africa and his impact on his country.

On her last night in Cape Town, Diana Vega sat in front of a glowing computer screen and explained over Skype what it was like to see Nelson Mandela’s impact on South Africa firsthand.

Vega is one of 11 recent graduates of Democracy Prep Charter High School who spent the last two weeks touring the country that Mandela shepherded out of legal segregation as president after decades as a political prisoner.

The trip also took students briefly to Egypt, where they had a long layover at the height of the country’s recent revolution, and to Lesotho, a small country inside South Africa that boasts ski resorts.

The school’s annual trips come out of its public funds, in keeping with the charter network’s mission, according to founder Seth Andrew. Andrew, who recently stepped down as the network’s CEO, said the trips allow students to experience the classroom lessons they learn throughout the year.

“We believe you can’t truly change the world until you understand it,” he said. “To understand it, we need to travel it, read about it, and experience it.”

The 14-day sojourn included historic sites, nature preserves, adventure sports, and local schools. For part of the time, students stayed with families to experience life in South Africa.

Vega said there was a huge difference between learning about the end of apartheid in the classroom and touring Robben Island, where Mandela spent the majority of his 27 years in prison. What shocked Vega the most, she said, is that more than 20 years since the end of apartheid, she could still see its effects on the country.

“Things have changed, but it hasn’t drastically changed,” she said.

Fellow graduate Alize-Jazel Smith said she agreed, based on their travels to different townships and seeing the economic and social disparities in different neighborhoods. She said she could tell the country was moving forward, but it was hard “to measure where they’re at.”

The most memorable moment came when the group of students listened to three South Africans recount their efforts to end apartheid, she said.

“We’ve been to the museums and we’ve interacted with some of the kids, but seeing the people that actually did something or tried to do something to end apartheid … They had the power, they had the guts, they had the strength to say this is wrong and I’m going to try to do something about that,” she said. “I think that’s amazing. Those are people who change the world.”