GoAbroad Interview

Sean Walpole - Program Director

Sean Walpole - Program Director

Sean Walpole grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe. He studied abroad at the University of Cape Town and relocated to Cape Town permanently in 2002. Sean worked as a PADI Scuba instructor in Mozambique and Cape Town. Sean has been an entrepreneur from a young age, having founded his first company in Zimbabwe in 1999. Sean was a founding member of VACorps in 2006.

You graduated from the University of Cape Town and have experience working with international students. What was the impetus for founding VACorps?

I had a very rich and rewarding experience as a study abroad student at University of Cape Town (UCT). Like many other students living abroad in a foreign country for the first time, I learned a great deal from the challenges presented and saw a great opportunity to help others have a more seamless experience.

Everest Base Camp

Trip to Everest Base Camp

I met Oliver Hagan shortly after I graduated from UCT. Oliver was also studying abroad at UCT at the time, and after he also graduated, we seized the opportunity to found VACorps in 2006. With our shared experiences and insights, VACorps began hosting its first interns shortly thereafter. We have ever since been focused on helping interns to get the very most out of their abroad experience in Cape Town, South Africa.

What does a typical day look like for you as the Director of Programs for VACorps?

My role at VACorps kicks of on a Monday morning at 7:30 a.m. The whole team has its first meeting at that time. Fortunately, we have a motivated team combined with a delicious supply of coffee to get the week moving off to a flying start! Most Cape Town companies get kicked off at a much more agreeable time each day.

At that meeting we cover various VACorps functions for the week, the highlights being the plans for the Friday Activity, a recap of any arrivals for the week, and any challenges that may have come up since the last week.

My responsibilities at VACorps include a great deal of business, finance, and administrative work. This keeps the back end functions of the company running smoothly, and our company banking, tax, insurance, and legal compliance in place. I also work closely with our housing partners and oversee this vital component of an intern’s Cape Town experience!

Scuba Divers

Teaching Scuba

Your academic background is in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, how do you apply this knowledge to your work with VACorps?

My studies at the University of Cape Town have proved invaluable in helping me to run a South African business, which has its own set of unique challenges. Some of the most useful ones being accounting, management, game theory, micro and macro-economics, international business, logic, and development economics.

These, among others, enabled me to accomplish the goal of becoming an international entrepreneur and helped us as VACorps to match the needs of international interns looking to have an abroad experience with a solid South African based organization.

From your own experience, what is a typical day like for a VACorps intern?

VACorps interns have the incredible opportunity to really immerse themselves in the city of Cape Town. They wake up, get ready, head to work on public transport or our provided transport, and work alongside other interns, and most importantly other South Africans, in Cape Town based companies.

After a working day in the city, and having had the opportunity to contribute at their worksite and get a real South African work experience, they head home with the vibrant rush hour buzz and then they have the evening to hang out with their housemates who are also experiencing the same thing. The interns reflect on the day they had, and can explore one of the amazing restaurants in Cape Town and get context for the vibrant place they live in. Interns can do all this within a week of arriving - the value we add is helping take away all the uncertainty about such a daunting journey into the unknown.

We provide interns a safe context and support network, pretty much the ability to become a ‘local Capetonian’ in a week.

What is the ideal VACorps participant like?

An ideal VACorps participant has an open mind, a thirst for adventure, and is excited about South Africa and South Africa’s story. An ideal participant has a great attitude and a big smile. Africans love to smile, laugh, and have a good life perspective. They often don't take things too seriously and have a light hearted disposition. Cape Town tends to be a lifestyle city, with rush hour traffic starting at lunch time on a Friday, with excited Capetonians heading off to the beach, to hike the mountains, or just relax. While not an absolute necessity, an intern who loves hiking, climbing, scuba diving, running, and generally enjoying natural beauty and being outdoors, Cape Town has so much to offer.

Volunteers on a roadside in Mozambique

Mozambique Trip

As a South African, do you have any recommended literature for interns prior to their arrival in Cape Town?

Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One and Tandia are good. More academic would Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Good movies to watch would be Cry the Beloved Country, The Power of One, and District 9. Movies Shot in Cape Town include Blood Diamond, Lord of War, and Safe House - it’s quite fun to recognize places when you get here.

You’ve led trips throughout Africa, what makes South Africa such an excellent place for an internship program?

I have been lucky enough to spend time in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland, and Mozambique. Mozambique is by far my favorite African travel destination as it offers the chance to really experience rural, tropical, disconnected, off-the-grid paradise. That said, I think that South Africa, and especially Cape Town, has the whole package for an extended stay and a valuable internship.

Cape Town is an international city with excellent infrastructure. It is English-speaking, has a favorable exchange rate, and a thriving cosmopolitan atmosphere. The businesses here are open to interns, and the internships are abundant, dynamic, exciting, and often are startups/entrepreneurial. There is so much opportunity!

You enjoy SCUBA diving, what kind of extra-curricular activities does VACorps offer interns to help them immerse with the local culture of Cape Town?

VACorps offers Xhosa classes each Wednesday to help you really integrate, we join the community running club on Wednesday and Fridays, and we have different Friday activities each week which help interns get out and do some of the things they may find complicated to do independently. The Friday activities are great fun, and also allow interns to network and meet each other. Vanessa, myself, and Oliver are all SCUBA instructors and love diving, so we often have SCUBA training on the go.

Volunteers on a cliff

VAC Friday Activity

What does the future hold for VACorps? Are you expanding any of your programs?

VACorps is continuing to grow in Cape Town. We have established several very positive partnerships with international universities. Two areas that we are developing include our faculty-led service, which supports visiting professors and their groups to make use of our local expertise. We offer an end-to-end service which allows them to focus on the learning element of the trip, and we take care of the logistics to make that happen. We are also looking at spreading our wings to offer a short-term program in Mozambique. This will help an intern visiting Cape Town to not only get a South African experience, but also a truly rural African experience.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your work with VACorps?

I think what has made the biggest impact for me is seeing the difference we have made in the lives of our interns, our service providers, and our team. A mantra and feeling I have always had at VACorps is that as an organization, we change lives. While that may sound cliche, I am incredibly proud of the journey we have made as a company and the people we have touched along the way. I have been lucky enough to have made lifelong friends from all over the world, but even more importantly, VACorps has been a conduit that has connected very many people that may never have been connected otherwise. Through our work we have facilitated a truly global cultural exchange with our interns, their internship sites, and the connected companies that we offer support through. 

Bus in Mozambique

Bus to Mozambique