Bright Site Project of Sunnyside Service Learning Centre
University of South Africa, Department of Social Work
UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency)
Higher Ed - Public
The University of South Africa has a vision of service of humanity. In 2009, the Department of Social Work sought to achieve this goal by establishing the Bright Site of Sunnyside Service Learning Center. This project attempts to unite service learning, community engagement, and research by creating a collaborative consultation between students and faculty of the university and the neighboring community of Sunnyside.
Bright Site is a way of providing a service learning alternative for social work students, though it has also created many opportunities for other academic departments to get involved in community based research. Students connect with community members about their concerns, needs, and ideas. Between 2009 and 2012, fifteen NGOs have been assisted through management workshops, support groups, and consultation services. The program has addressed suchissues as homelessness, unemployment, and xenophobia. The Bright Site Project continues to grow and additional sites are being developed in Durban and Isnembe.
The University of South Africa (UNISA) is the oldest university in South Africa. Established in 1873 as the University of the Cape of Good Hope, the school grew and expanded through a series of mergers and trades. Today, the university’s main campus is located in Pretoria and UNISA offers expansive distance learning options to African and international students from more than 130 countries. In 2006, the school boasted an enrollment of more than 300,000 students, most of whom are distant learners.
In March 2005, the universitysaw the need for social responsibility and announced its vision of being “the African university in the service of humanity.” In 2009, UNISA’s School of Social Work sought to increase collaboration between the university and its neighboring community of Sunnyside in response to this vision. This community was seen as an area of importance due to its close proximity to the main campus in Pretoria and the fact that it encompassed many of the problems seen in South Africa, including poverty, unemployment, xenophobia, and HIV/AIDS. The Department of Social Work introduced the Bright Site Project, a collaboration of efforts between students and faculty of the university and the community of Sunnyside in Pretoria.
Bright Site describes its vision as “UNISA and communities engaged in mutual service” and is based upon the “three interconnected pillars of higher education.” These pillars are teaching and learning, community engagement, and research. The main objectives of the project include: mobilize, activate, and engage UNISA and the broader community in mutual service; integrate theory and practice by means of learning through service and service through learning; provide accessible, holistic, and comprehensive support services to UNISA and the broader community; create opportunities for learning and capacity building; engage in research to inform policy and interventions; mobilize, develop, and share resources; and facilitate engagement processes of participants.
Organizers decided that the project would be carried out through a non-hierarchical team based on functions. Initially, chief problems were identified by conducting an “awareness walk” in the community. During this walk, students interviewed community members, street vendors, refugees, residents, religious leaders, and youth residing in the community. Focus groups were held with local authorities, welfare organizations, nonprofits, and relevant government departments. Eventually, the project was able to advance as a diverse group of partners took co-ownership of the project and community members became empowered. The creation of a service learning site offered alternative options for assignments of social work students within the community engagement context. Students provide services while learning and gaining experience in their area of study.
The project has seen considerable growth since its conception. In 2009, it began with only seven students placed at the Sunnyside Service Center. By 2010 it had grown to 18 students and in 2011 it reached 35 student participants. Bright Site offers service learning opportunities not only to social work students, but also those with a concentration in clinical psychology. More departments will be accommodated as the program grows. Additionally, the project offers research opportunities to any academic at UNISA, currently including collaborations with the Departments of Sociology, Religious Studies, and Further Education.
Fifteen NGOs have been supported with capacity building through management workshops, debriefing support groups, counseling, and consultation services. Concerns that have been addressed have included unemployment, homelessness, assimilation of refugees, xenophobia, education, culture, and HIV/AIDS. Various events (including recreational days, English classes, workshops, research projects, and training courses) are held regularly to bring together UNISA and community participants. The project has been so successful that additional urban and rural sites are being created in Durban and Isnembe.