‘Child of apartheid’ and Saybrook alumna influencing South African education

By Shamontiel Vaughn

Recognizing one’s privilege is a difficult road to travel. But for Carolyn Burns, a Saybrook alumna in the Counseling Psychology program, there was no escaping the privilege she had as a child. The self-described “child of apartheid” chose to use her professional background to try to right some wrongs by starting the community outreach program Ukulapha.



After the National Party gained power in South Africa in 1948, nonwhite South Africans (a majority of the population) were the victims of apartheid. Under the governance of President F.W. de Klerk, in 1991, South Africa finally took a turn for the better. But even though apartheid has been well-documented in and out of the continent, Saybrook alumna Carolyn Burns quickly confirms that the traumatic impact of apartheid is still a subject some citizens choose to deny.

Carolyn Burns

“I was acutely aware of having automatically received privilege as a child during apartheid,” Burns says. “But most white South Africans prefer not to admit it happened because it’s very inconvenient for them. Equality is very inconvenient for them because they no longer have the privilege that they had during apartheid. However, they still have more privileges than people of color today. It’s still very touchy.”

But Burns didn’t just acknowledge her privilege. She decided to do something to try to level the playing field after advancing her own education.

Saybrook’s transformative, experiential program in Counseling Psychology caught her attention. Burns—who already holds three nursing diplomas in general nursing, midwifery, and pediatric nursing—decided to pursue the degree at the age of 47.

“After leaving South Africa and a marriage that wasn’t conducive to my mental or physical health, I realized that I needed some therapy,” Burns says. “Along that road, my therapist encouraged me to do the lay person counselor training program at the Citizens Counselling Centre in Victoria, B.C. What they do is offer counseling to less privileged people. I realized that this was a good fit. It was something that inspired me and got my juices flowing and something that I really wanted to be involved with because my initial work was also in the helping profession, in nursing. I healed so much through therapy and wanted to be part of that collaborative team. So that’s what led me to pursue a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology at Saybrook.”

After 25 years of living in Canada and with her new degree, she moved back to South Africa.

“Because of my training, I wanted to start a counseling center to train entry-level counselors who could then work in the community,” Burns says. “First though, friends gave me money to start an organization, Ukulapha, which would provide substantial food parcels to child headed households stricken by the AIDS crisis.”

She worked with seven families and managed monthly food deliveries to children throughout the community.

One of those children, 11-year-old Mantombi Mngadi, won over her heart simply by sitting in the backseat of her car while Burns delivered groceries. Mngadi’s mother died a little more than a year before their car rides, and Burns couldn’t ignore the “bright, young soul who was just looking for love and connection.” Burns knew that handing out food parcels alone wasn’t going to help someone advance in their lives, and she still had an itch to do more.

That’s when Ukulapha expanded to work at the underprivileged Slangspruit Primary School (SPS), located in the township where Mantombi was a scholar. The ongoing goal, according to Burns, is to improve teaching and learning conditions at the school.

“We started off with about 790 children at Slangspruit Primary School,” Burns says. “There now are 1,090, which means that we are able to impact their lives and their families’ lives. We also offer high school scholarships to Alexandra High where they receive a well-rounded quality education. This provides an opportunity toward a brighter future.”

Mngadi, now a 20-year-old mom, and Burns still keep in touch. Additionally, Burns has also kept in touch with her Saybrook family. Dan Leahy, the Director of the Seattle Campus, was Burns’ lead faculty at the time and is someone Burns has visited off and on over the years. Burns calls him her “cheerleader” for his continous support since her graduation from Saybrook.

Through Dan Leahy, Burns was introduced to faculty at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology (TCSPP) and International Liaison Officer for South Africa, Kari Prince, who was organizing graduate student field experiences to South Africa. From this networking, two faculty members and 10 students from TCSPP’s Educational Psychology and Technology Ed.D. program completed their first study abroad course in South Africa.



Recommended Reading: Learning about education with a South African lens



“We were really impressed with the maturity, the talents, the enthusiasm, and the hard work of the 10 students,” Burns says. “Within the first 15 minutes of their workshops, those students had the teachers interacting. I was blown away at the skill set they used to bridge the gap even with limited technology, how they made the teachers feel comfortable. I look forward to more students returning.”

With high hopes of more programs such as TCSPP’s EPT program educating both South African teachers and students, as well as U.S. students, Burns has a couple other things on her bucket list: Secure more funds to cover salaries for Ukulapha to have a young, Zulu face as the on-site manager of the programs; upgrade the underprivileged high school in the township that most of the students graduating from SPS attend; and offer intensive “in classroom” training programs for Slangspruit Primary School teachers in  2018.

“I would love to be more involved as a Saybrook alumna, out in the field,” Burns says. “With the teamwork that TCSPP and Saybrook have built, it would be really satisfying for me to continue to see that grow. And also help underprivileged children in the process.”