Think of South Africa. Do poverty, civil war, AIDS and a history of apartheid come to mind?
That's not all there is to the country, said Chelsie Wyatt, a Modesto Christian High School 2006 graduate who recently returned from spending five months in the country with her classmates at Southern California's Azusa Pacific University.
Chelsie and some 40 other students studied abroad throughout the country from January through May. Once she arrived, she discovered her preconceptions about South Africa were just that — preconceptions.
"Think of the bluest sky you've ever seen and multiply it by five," she said. "It's a beautiful country."
Chelsie and her group flew into Johannesburg and visited museums and the capital. Then they flew to Capetown, where they stayed for a month while taking university courses. They got to know South African students and took such classes as anthropology, conflict management, history of South Africa, and the life and teachings of Jesus.
While there, she stayed with a host family — she calls the parents her "mom and dad away from home." The family had been victims of apartheid, a period of legalized racial segregation that occurred between 1948 and the early 1990s.
"It was sad being there," she said, "but good seeing where they came from."
Chelsie and her group took a field trip to the prison cell of Nelson Mandela, the famous anti-apartheid activist. They rode ostriches.
One of the most humbling experiences she had was in Capetown. Her group met four girls, living on the street, all under the age of 10, who couldn't speak English. The older students invited the children to stay the night in their hotel. They fed them, clothed them and let them take showers.
"It was hard seeing these things," Chelsie said, "but we learned so much."
Chelsie and her group then traveled to the town of Durbin, the most tourist-filled area they visited.
"You see these monkeys and they are so adorable, and then they start attacking your feet and stealing your food," she said.
Chelsie's group also started a community-service project while in Durbin. "I worked at a battered-women's shelter with women who had stories you wouldn't believe," said Chelsie.
Perhaps her most profound experience was when she was able to attend a traditional Zulu funeral for a young girl who had died from AIDS. While riding behind a pickup truck containing several people close to the girl, including the child's sobbing mother, Chelsie heard the most beautiful singing.
"Here these people were worshipping God after their daughter had just died," she said.
While at the cemetery, Chelsie saw 400 to 500 newly dug graves, about five inches apart from one another.
"It's real, the (AIDS) epidemic you've heard is real," she said. "I will never forget that day. It changed my view forever on AIDS."
Pictures and souvenirs aren't the only things Chelsie brought back with her from South Africa. This trip changed her life, she said.
"I learned how much we don't need everything we think we do," she said. "People think they can't survive without their iPod, and they need new clothes at least once a month. You really learn to appreciate the simple life, the small things in life."
Emily Shrader is a junior at Enochs High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom journalism program.