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Local college students study in South Africa
By Qi Gu | Daily Herald Staff

Mount Prospect resident Victor Zavaleta, left, with a South African fan in Durban.


Courtesy of World Learning

College students Victor Zavaleta of Mt. Prospect, left, Erik Haslinger of Cary and Joe Bongiovanni of Algonquin outside the World Learning's office in Durban, South Africa.


Courtesy of World Learning

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Published: 6/30/2010 11:59 PM

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Of all the ways to spend the summer, they picked one of the most novel.

Among the heat of World Cup soccer, Joe Bongiovanni from Algonquin, Erik Haslinger from Cary and Victor Zavaleta from Mount Prospect joined a 6-week World Learning study abroad program in South Africa. Together with 30 other college students from across America, they are looking into the relationship between sports and socioeconomic development.

The three watched four group stage matches already: Argentina and Nigeria, Spain and Switzerland, Netherlands and Japan, and Korea and Nigeria.

"The crowd was insane. The energy level was more intense than football in America," said Haslinger, a football die-hard at Northern Illinois University.

Through WhizzKids United, a South African HIV/AIDS awareness group, they also took local kids out to the games.

A 10-year soccer player, Bongiovanni said the experience rejuvenated his interest in the sport, though taking care of eight jolly souls while watching the game was not easy.

"It definitely has an impact on me," he said. "I'll try some coaching with kids after coming back home."

Amazed at the diversity in Durban Stadium, the students were also struck by the stark contrast between the rich and poor.

Haslinger is staying with a Zulu host family. A lack of hot running water forced him to boil water for a shower every morning. Just miles away, the city of Durban is bustling with new businesses.

Access to the Internet, at an average of $30 a month, is beyond affordable for many ordinary families, said Imraan Buccus, the academic director of the South African program. Since charges are often based on the bandwidth, video call programs like Skype are out of the question.

Despite the "juxtaposition of extreme opulence and poverty" Buccus said, students were impressed with the warmth of local people. Haslinger referred to his host's daughters as "sisters."

Zavaleta's parents are Mexican immigrants. "Being somewhere where everyone is so happy despite all the poverty and corruption reminds me of my home country," he said.

Bongiovanni expressed a similar sentiment.

"Being here makes me appreciate small things in life," he said.