Villa’s adventure: studies in South Africa



Ximena Villa (11) (middle) poses with close friends at the Taalu celebration. Taalu, an Arabic word that means “coming together,” is a tradition at the African Leadership Academy. At the beginning of the year, students dress in traditional clothing to share their culture and bond through diversity.

Ximena Villa (11) (second from left) poses with her house, Zambezi, after winning the Intro to House Games competition. At the African Leadership Academy, student houses competed against each other to win house points and strengthen connections every Tuesday.

A teacher’s eye lingers over a name on their roll they want to call it out but they cannot. After all, the student will not respond. They’re over 8,700 miles away. 

For the entire first semester, Ximena Villa (11) left Memphis behind to study in Johannesburg, South Africa. Through the School for Ethics and Global Leadership program, Villa studied with the African Leadership Academy (ALA), a selective boarding school for future leaders coming from all over Africa.

 “ALA is basically like a two-year academy it’s kind of like a post-high school, pre-college type of thing,” Villa said. “[T]hey receive … thousands of applications every year and only 200 students are accepted.”

Initially, Villa did not think they would be chosen for the SEGL exchange with ALA; however, their application was accepted for the fall semester. With financial support from SEGL and the Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholars Program, Villa’s plans were cemented for the end of August to the beginning of December. The only thing left was to prepare and embrace the change. 

“I was there when Ximena first found out about [the program], and at first I think they were kind of hesitant to go, because they were like ‘Oh, I won’t experience the American high school life,’” Yirui Tang (11) said. “[B]ut after they … got in, I got the call, and they were actually very excited about it.” 

ALA life is very different from life in Memphis: students’ connections to the school and to each other are heightened as they live on campus in one of six halls. Two halls combine and form houses that are named after rivers in Africa, like Zambezi, Nile and Niger. A sense of sisterhood and brotherhood forms in each house through connection frameworks like Tuesday house competitions and peer counselors. Even outside of house connections, students form deep relationships with each other from spending so much time together.

“It’s insane how close you get to people because you see them 24/7,” Villa said. “You live with them, you eat with them, you study with them, you workout with them. You do everything with the people that are around you, so I think the bonds that I formed over there are gonna be friendships that I remember for my entire life.”

The SEGL program required Villa to take an ethics and leadership course, but they were also able to take several upper level and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Classes offered at ALA are similar to those at White Station, but class sizes are much smaller. For example, in Villa’s AP Calculus class, there were fewer than 10 students. Ultimately, smaller classes allowed Villa to connect deeply with many of their teachers and helped improve their comprehension of their subjects.

“I’ve been struggling with math ever since [quarantine], but when I got on campus, my teacher … was really able to … go at a pace that we were really able to learn and interact with the content, and so ever since then, math has been so easy, like she just made math so easy from here until I graduate … and so I’m really grateful for that,” Villa said.

Villa embraced scores of possibilities at ALA: they picked up new sports, forged connections with teachers in small classes and snuck out to stargaze on the soccer field. However, Villa’s learning did not stop outside of the classroom. Instead, they embraced the opportunity to develop and mature.

“One mantra that I am definitely deciding to keep, and I learned this from one of my closest friends over there, is ‘seek discomfort,’” Villa said. “I kept doing things that I’ve always wanted to do … I joined volleyball [and soccer] … I would just go to people’s rooms and be like ‘Hey, wanna hang out?’ Simple stuff where I was like ‘If I wanted to do it, then why not?’”

Even with the many high points of the semester, not everything was easy for Villa. Many challenges come with leaving behind a lifetime of foundations and starting over in a brand new environment. However, Villa embraced the challenge, discovered people that helped them see the world in a much different way and found a new strength. 

“Ximena’s always been very social,” Tang said. “[B]ut I think now Ximena has broadened their horizons even more. I think they have a better idea of who they are, and who they want to be.”