Gilman Scholar explores issues of identity in South Africa

Atiya McGhee 1Atiya McGhee ’14 spent the fall in South Africa, studying issues of identity that arise from racial segregation.

The senior won an award from the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program to support a semester-long exploration of South African society, from Cape Town and its Langa Township to the predominantly Afrikaans city of Stellenbosch.

“My experience was exhilarating,” said McGhee, who is a Wheaton Posse Scholar. “Between my first home stay in Langa to my final home stay in Bo-Kaap, I was overwhelmed with how much this journey did for me, particularly for my spirituality and growth as a person.”

A major in creative writing and literature, McGhee has been deeply interested in the ways in which segregation shapes identity, and how these perspectives are reflected and influenced by literature. Her interest in the narratives of segregated communities arises from her childhood, growing up in a creative community in the Bronx.

“I saw the power that creative writing had in redefining my community, and I believe it has the same power elsewhere,” she said. “In South Africa, I studied how people’s own self-identification has changed with time.”

Atiya McGhee 3McGhee stayed with families in Bo-Kaap, Langa, Tshabo II and Stellenbosch. She visited several dozen museums, including the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg; interviewed local residents, artists and authors in several communities; and studied the Afrikaans and Xhosa languages. She also conducted research on the resilience of black township students and their journey to higher education, looking at how mentoring, family structures and community involvement influenced their pursuit.

McGhee now plans to further the goals of the Gilman scholarship program by sharing her experiences in South Africa with the campus community and by organizing a workshop to assist other Wheaton students in applying for scholarships to underwrite study abroad experiences.

Atiya McGhee 2Active in campus affairs, McGhee is involved in a range of programs at Wheaton. She is a resident assistant in the dorms, a leader for the college’s first-year student orientation, a trainer for Wheaton’s Safe-Zone program and an ambassador for the Admission Office.

Reflecting on the many valuable lessons she has learned from her experience, she advises: push for what you want and step outside of your comfort zone.

“Initially, I had no intentions of going abroad. Whenever I considered filling out the applications I would stop myself. I was convinced that I wasn’t going to survive abroad or that I wouldn’t find a way for paying for my abroad fees. Yet, this just wasn’t true. I kept pushing with the guidance of my mentors and friends and made it happen.”

McGhee was the fourth Wheaton student to win a Gilman scholarship in 2013. Three other members of her class won awards from the Gilman program to fund study in Egypt, Brazil and Spain.

The Gilman scholarship program aims to diversify the kinds of students who study abroad, as well as the countries and regions to which they go, by supporting undergraduates who might not otherwise participate because of financial constraints. Sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, the program is intended to help prepare U.S. students to play meaningful roles in an increasingly global economy and interdependent world.