Alumni Spotlight: Mark McKown


Mark is from central Illinois. After completing an Agriculture Education degree at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he lived and worked in Cape Town, South Africa as an intern with VACorps.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose this program because the intern placement was able to complement my specific degree from University. The program also was able to provide all of the 'unknown' components I could not plan or prepare for my time in Africa. Specifically, room and board, meal plans, and driving were taken care of by the program managers. I also loved the customization of the program. I was able to select specific outings I wanted to participate in and I took on a variety of additional 'adventures' the program offered. The most defining being the scuba certification course.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

I was able to take a somewhat preparatory course with the University of Illinois, but I did not travel for college credit. I was connected to the VAC staff with a VAC partner on my campus. I was responsible for creating an application and compiling materials to identify a proper placement with the VAC internship sites.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

One advice I would share is that every activity or opportunity will be great to explore both the culture and your personal boundaries. I was happily surprised to be able to make new friends and learn more about life outside of the Midwest. I was looking to be better cultured and this internship program allows those developments when you take advantage of all that they offer.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

An average week will never be the same. I took advantage of the meal plan and would pick up meals weekly at a central bar/cafe that became a hub for program participants. For work, I went to a nonprofit located in Mitchell's Plain. This is a highly populated suburb of Cape Town and the VAC program allocated private transport Monday through Thursday to my work site. This was a fun way to meet and interact with other interns that also were provided private transport. On Fridays, we would stay in Cape Town/surrounding areas and visit local attractions at no cost as part of the 'adventure' in Volunteer Adventure Corps.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear would be that I was an outsider, that I wouldn't belong and feel lonely. I immediately found that I was connected and sharing experiences with all of the other VAC interns. Upon arrival in South Africa, I was with two other interns and never found myself alone or feeling disconnected from those around me. Additionally, I was in a house with both interns and local residents. I made a close friend of a local and loved getting to know them and see parts of the city together. I also felt like I had a tribe with the other interns that started with me and had similar personalities. I was never alone.

What was your best story from your time with VAC in South Africa?

There was a very fond memory I have from my time in South Africa as an intern with VAC. I and some other program participants wanted to deepen our experiences in all that South Africa had to offer. We knew of the optional additional travel opportunities provided by VAC but wanted to make it our own. So, we rented two cars to take across the country.

We drove along what is called the Garden Route. It was AMAZING. We stayed at a hostel on the beach in a converted train car one night. We went bungee jumping off Bloukrans Bridge (the highest bridge bungee) the next day. We went to an elephant sanctuary, an ostrich farm (highly recommend--very fun), and of course, the big one, an African safari. We were given recommendations and advise from VAC, but created our own trip of a lifetime while already a part of a trip of a lifetime.

What was the best part of choosing VAC over other programs?

I would recommend VAC over all other programs because all of your experiences and memories are custom made by you, the participant. I chose my housing, meal plan, and additional activities. The activities that VAC offers truly create your own sense of self as a (temporary) South African. I remember going to wineries, touring the botanical gardens, and hiking trails all of which would have been immensely difficult to plan and execute if I was on my own. The camaraderie among staff members and interns and local residents is phenomenal. I feel like if I were to go back I wouldn't skip a beat and have a sense of ease and understanding because of the immersion (and support to succeed) VAC provides to their participants.