VACorps: Internships in South Africa

Meet one of the people behind one of the coolest intern-travel programmes in Cape Town

When VACorps co-founder Oliver Hagan left the familiar foothills and forests of Pacific-Northwest America for a South Africa that hadn’t even registered 10 years of democracy, he could never have imagined how his life would change.

“I came to do a study abroad semester at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and at the time, it was the bravest thing I’d ever done,” he recalls. That was back in 2003, not even a decade after the fall of apartheid and well before he’d flirted with fame as a journalism intern in Ghana and somewhat narrowly escaped an avalanche in Nepal.

He admits that, at that point, he would never have described himself as adventurous. But after forging an incredible connection with the Mother City and her people, he discovered an open-mindedness and a thirst for exploration that would ultimately lead him to co-found the Volunteer Adventure Corps (VACorps) with UCT Underwater Club mate Sean Walpole.

Since then, he and his team have paved the way for hundreds of VACorps programme participants to have similarly life-changing experiences (or in the very least, to have a helluva lot of fun and learn something along the way).

VACorps is a Cape Town-based internship organisation that specialises in connecting undergraduate students or graduates (really anyone who’s over 18 qualifies) with a meaningful intern experience and an unforgettable adventure in the Mother City.

The programme hinges on customised placement, which means that Oliver and his team work hard to engage future interns in conversation and match them with companies, NGOs or civic departments in a way that makes for mutually beneficial partnerships.  At the same time though, the venture is also thoroughly devoted to encouraging visitors to get out and explore one of the world’s most dynamic metropolises.

“It’s a future-oriented approach that melds travel and professional experience,” Oliver explains. “Instead of backpacking around Europe, interns get to understand the local culture, meet lots of people from all over the world and develop a valuable résumé piece that’s so important for getting a job today.”

The VACorps philosophy didn’t just blossom overnight though; it’s been built on Oliver’s own journey, the first leg of which began all that time ago in a UCT orientation session across from two Norwegians.

“I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘I’ve never met anyone from Norway’,” he reminisces. The revelation sounds rather simple, but it was the beginning of a realisation that he was about to navigate a foreign country on his own…solo…without the help of anybody else.

It wasn’t long before he’d made the decision to stay another semester and, by default, live like a true local.  The element of independence that came with the second half of his sojourn in SA was completely unique to a study abroad programme, and it’s become an instrumental part of VACorps.

“Our programme isn’t designed to force you to do anything. We don’t want to ruin someone’s opportunity to discover the city for themselves.”

That’s not to say that interns will be ‘left up crap’s creek without the paddle’; it’s quite the opposite in fact. Oliver and Sean’s organisation prides itself on offering a strong level of in-country support and a structured network.

Or, as Oliver puts it, “We’re not going to hold your hand and walk you to work every day; rather, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure type experience where we’re on call at all times so we can share our wisdom and advice.”

More specifically, apart from organising the internship, arranging the housing and orienting new arrivals, VACorps offers a host of optional and super kiff (as they say in SA) weekly activities: interns can take isiXhosa lessons, join the neighbourhood running club, sign-up for Friday excursions around the city, opt to join special trips outside of Cape Town and register for a lunch and dinner meal plan.

The classes and outings aren't mandatory (only regular internship attendance is), but the regular events mean that participants get a chance to quickly and easily become part of a genuine community made up of truly interesting, like-minded people.

This instant network of friends-to-be is one of the programme’s finest calling cards, and it makes it all the easier for interns to, as Oliver says, “get a general sense of feeling comfortable in the city, adventure on your own and not just do everything your Lonely Planet tells you to do.”

And as he can attest to thanks to his time as a journalism intern in Accra (Ghana), where he reported on a court-ordered cocaine bust, wrote a weekly column for the newspaper and earned a shout-out from a famous presenter on a well-loved television show, there’s nothing better than trekking off the beaten path.

Just be wary of avalanches.

Signing up for a VACorps Internship in South Africa

If you’re interested in learning more about an internship in South Africa, fill out a VACorps application form. From there, a member of the VACorps team will be in touch to find out more about what kind of intern experience you’re looking for.

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Wondering what’s so great about having a intern-travel experience in the Mother City? Read 10 great reasons why you should do an internship in Cape Town.

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