SA race habits hard to break
They left South Africa as excited students specially selected to take part in an international programme designed to shape their perceptions of leadership, culture and race.
But by the time the first-year students landed in the US they had split along all-too-familiar lines: white and black students had gravitated into separate groups.
During an orientation session in New York last week, the dean of student affairs at the University of the Free State, Rudi Buys, bluntly asked them about this. One student remarked that she kept to those she "understood" and whose culture she knew. Buys then urged the students to mingle with those who were "different" instead of seeking "comfort in sameness".
The group of 114 students spent their first two days in the city before heading off to various universities, including New York University, Cornell and Cleveland State.
They are participating in a Leadership for Change programme that was initiated as part of a series of transformation projects following the Reitz video scandal in 2008.
Some will be based in the US for the two-week programme and others have been placed with universities in the Netherlands and Belgium.
A group of 12 placed at the University of Minnesota started their first week with several discussions about diversity, inclusion and equity.
Addressing them during a session on Monday was Kristin Lockhart, the US university's associate vice-president for equity and diversity. She said her "lived experience" was influenced by how her race was perceived.
"As a person perceived to be white, when I go into a meeting or apply for a job, immediately people in a room presume that I'm skilled and have an education or background to support my work."
But, Lockhart said, the same presumptions were not made about her black colleagues, who invariably had to prove themselves despite having the same skills, experience and education.
Her story touched 18-year-old Kagiso Makaise, who had only ever lived in black neighbourhoods and whose first experience of living with whites came when he started at UFS.
The first-year law student from Windsorton, near Barkly West in the Northern Cape, said Lockhart's honesty helped him feel more comfortable to raise questions about race.
Lockhart said South Africa and the US had similar race-relations histories, but SA was tackling the issue whereas in the US it was largely ignored.
During a later session with US students who are studying leadership as part of their courses, accounting student Nontando Msikinya broke down in tears when she was asked what impact she would like to make in her chosen career.
She said she would like to spare other children her trauma of not being raised by her own parents. Msikinya, 19, from Mthatha, Eastern Cape, was raised by her grandfather, but once he died there was a lack of family support.
She said her situation had left her with "shackles from the past" but she now believed that things were possible for her. "My highlight so far is that I have allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to let go of the shackles that have kept me back from reaching my full potential," Msikinya said.
On the challenge of mingling with different students, Jaclyn-Chanel Coetzer said: "I judge [people] too fast. I regret it ... I am also getting out of my comfort zone ."
At Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, the students were invited to attend lectures with their US counterparts. Here Charné Viljoen said the university created an atmosphere that made studying "fun" and that some of the US students seemed surprised by the knowledgeable and mature attitudes of the South Africans.
- Sunday Times journalist Isaac Mahlangu is visiting three US cities during the Leadership For Change programme