Published: January 24, 2017
As Pacific Oaks College’s first student to study abroad in South Africa, recent graduate Paula Swearingen reflects on how the experience prepared her for her current role in early childhood education.
Paula Swearingen grew up playing “teacher,” often offering to babysit neighborhood kids for free. Even then, she knew early childhood education could change lives and she wanted to be that leader and mentor in her Los Angeles community.
So when it came time to choose a graduate school, Pacific Oaks’ history of anti-bias curriculum and social justice compelled her.
“The main reason I chose Pacific Oaks was because of their embrace of diversity, and the idea that every individual has something unique to contribute,” she says. “That was very important to me.”
But what Swearingen did not anticipate was receiving the opportunity to experience that diversity on a global scale.
While Pacific Oaks faculty and early childhood experts have been working with teachers in the rural Singita Sabi Sand area of South Africa since 2011, Swearingen was the first student in Pacific Oaks history to make that journey. For three weeks, she accompanied a Pacific Oaks dean and faculty member to visit 11 schools located in Soweto, Kwa Thema township, Singita Sabi Sand, Hazyview, Kruger National Park, and Mpumalanga.
“The teachers in South Africa work out of passion—not for need of money,” explains Swearingen, who graduated with a master’s degree in early childhood education in December 2015 and gave an “Ed Talk” at Pacific Oaks about her experience in South Africa. “It was truly life-changing. Our goal was to go in there with a humble attitude and assist these teachers, with the understanding that we would learn as much from them and their experiences as they learned from us.”
The memories of those three weeks have stayed with Swearingen, and continue to influence her work today as an educator and mentor. In addition to her job as a student evaluation technician working with diverse populations at Long Beach Unified School District, she has been designated as a Mentor Teacher and Director Mentor by the California Early Childhood Mentor Program—a nonprofit organization that provides resources and support to aspiring teachers and administrators in before- and after-school programs serving children birth to age 5.
“I took back with me two important lessons about teaching. One is how positive teacher and child interaction can work miracles when managing a classroom. The other is about the vital role that a parent plays in establishing meaningful learning experiences for children,” Swearingen says. “Whether it’s in South Africa or Los Angeles, when you open up your doors to different cultures, and understand how culture influences the way a child learns, you can become a better educator.”
From the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in classrooms in South Africa to the chance to interact with nationally renowned early childhood experts, Swearingen says she could not be happier with her choice of Pacific Oaks.
“It gave me the skills and education needed to achieve my full potential as a child development specialist and advocate. I utilize my knowledge and research on quality programs in my work every day,” she adds. “Since I was a child, I wanted to be that positive adult in a young person’s life to provide a foundation for learning. Pacific Oaks gave me the tools to do just that.”