Student Spotlight: Martin Townes

Martin Charles Townes, an anthropology major in the School of World Studies, traveled this summer to South Africa for a study abroad trip led by Assistant Professor Amy Rector Verrelli.

Martin’s group visited the Natural History Museum in Pretoria and received unprecedented access to its hominid fossil collection. They were able to see and touch the famous Mrs. Ples skull that belongs to a hominid species called Australopithecus africanus that lived 2 million years ago and walked upright. They also took part in a paleoanthropological dig at the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site named by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  A native of Kenya and leader of the site, Dr. Job Kibii, who also works for Witwatersrand University, was one of the people who extracted the Australopithecus sediba skeleton. The group visited Kruger National Park where they were able to see lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos and buffalo up close and ended their trip in Cape Town, where they spent time volunteering at an orphanage. In a recent email Martin shared this experience with us:

visit to orphanageThe orphanage was a tiny little building in one of Cape Towns slums, the woman who ran it was basically poor herself but was doing what she could to help abandoned kids. The kids that were there included an infant, some toddlers, kids about five to six years in age and teenagers. They didn’t wear uniforms, they wore whatever clothing was available to them. Before going there we went and filled up our van with diapers, infant formula, rice, flour and other supplies to donate to the orphanage. While there we helped to pretty up the kids little playground area by picking up glass shards and other litter that we found on the ground. We also painted the graffiti laden wall and decorated it with new illustrations to make it kid friendly.

Most of us had packed a sandwich to eat for lunch and when that time came we shared half of whatever we had with the children. I must say seeing the joy that that small act gave to them made me appreciate all that I have that much more, and I’m sure everyone in the group felt the same way.

After we finished our mission at the orphanage and said our goodbyes to the children and staff, there wasn’t a dry eye in the van going to our residence there.

Martin also shared with us how this study abroad experience has changed his perspective of South Africa and given him an opportunity to engage in valuable hands-on learning.

The VCU led study abroad program to South Africa is something I have wanted to do ever since my first semester at VCU but I was hesitant to sign up for various reasons. As fate would have it I attended one of Dr. Verrelli’s special presentations where she talked about some of the activities that take place during her trips to South Africa. That lecture/slide show presentation was great and when she showed in photos that students get to touch some of the worlds most famous hominid fossils I was absolutely sold!

During our first few days there we got to go behind the scenes at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg and meet the scientists who are responsible for shedding light on humanity’s distant ancestors. I remember going into this back room at the university and meeting the staff while they were at work. While back there I got to actually look at the famous two million year old Australopithecus sediba skeleton and chat with the scientists who helped to bring that specimen to light (That skeleton was featured on the cover of Scientific American magazine’s April 2012 edition).

I stood in awe as I thought to myself very few people in the world are even privy to see those specimens up close; usually the museums have replicas on display.

The beautiful thing about study abroad trips is it gives students perspective on what’s great about the home country, and the host country can reveal things about what we could work on at home. Overall, great trip and I highly recommend it for my fellow students who are interested in study abroad programs!

Professor Verrelli relayed what a great role model she thinks Martin is and how he immersed himself in the study abroad experience.

“Martin really embraced studying abroad in South Africa – every chance he had to be involved in something, he didn’t hesitate and jumped in with both feet. He also made a friend every single place we went. We would go somewhere new, turn around, and Martin was already talking to a new person,learning about their life, and taking a picture with them. His unreserved excitement about everything we did made him such a great member of our team, and I am so happy that we was with us for the journey.”










View photos from the South Africa Study Abroad Trip on our Facebook page. Learn more about study abroad programs here.


Written by Denise Johnson