A photo of a person holding three monkeys while a fourth sits on top of their head
Maurice Gattis, Ph.D., an associate professor in the VCU School of Social Work, spent seven months in South Africa as a Fulbright Scholar. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Gattis)

In Cape Town, social work professor Maurice Gattis found 'the whole city was my learning lab'

The Fulbright Scholar spent seven months doing on-site research, and he hosted a spring study abroad program for a half-dozen VCU students.

Share this story

Maurice Gattis’ research on youth homelessness in Cape Town, South Africa, went from a project on paper to an on-site experience this year.

In January, the associate professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work began a seven-month stay overseas as a Fulbright Scholar in the social sciences and humanities. Fulbright, the U.S. government’s premier program of international educational and cultural exchange, sends approximately 800 scholars abroad each year.

Gattis, Ph.D., studied the psychosocial experiences of LGBTQI+ youth experiencing homelessness in South Africa’s Cape Metropole. He partnered with the University of the Western Cape on research activities, and he collaborated with the Pride Shelter Trust, a nonprofit that provides short-term accommodations to LGBTQI+ individuals during crisis periods.

“Why South Africa, you might ask. It’s the first country in the world to have protections for LGBTQI+ people in its constitution. The protections were approved in 1996 and took effect in 1997,” he said.

Gattis also led a study abroad program by bringing six VCU students to South Africa during spring break. They were joined by three students from the University of the Western Cape, and their activities included lectures, museum exhibitions, think tank dialogues and a visit to the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation to discuss attitudes toward gender and sexuality in Africa. On the lighter side, students enjoyed a safari in the Aquila Private Game Reserve and even burgers and a drag show at Beefcakes.

Senior Michael Verner was one of the VCU students on the trip. He had wanted to go to South Africa for a while.

“As a gay Black man living in the U.S. who is the descendant of enslaved Africans, I had the insatiable desire to step onto the land from which my people came. The problem was that I didn't know how to logistically or financially make that dream a reality. So when I heard of Dr. Gattis' study abroad program that explored the intersectionality of queerness and Blackness in post-colonial South Africa, I knew it was kismet,” said Verner, who is majoring in social work and hopes to one day open an LGBTQIA+ inclusive nursing home/senior living facility.

Verner cited several transformative experiences during his trip. At the misleadingly named Castle of Good Hope – a Dutch colonial refreshment station for ships that later became a prison holding Africans in their own land – the tour guide asked Verner if this was his first time in South Africa. It was.

“With the warmest smile, he said, ‘Welcome home,’” Verner said. “Until that moment, I didn't realize how much I needed to hear those words. At the hotel later that evening, I cried when I replayed the day's events. Although I'm African American, I've never felt American. That day, I felt African, like I was indeed home.”

Verner also praised Gattis’ nuanced ease and composure in directing the study abroad program, which included talking to LGBTQI+ youth experiencing homelessness as well as individuals working to address the issue.

“South Africa is unique in that it has specific points of interest for LGBTQI+ students,” Gattis said. “It’s such a vast and intricate country. It was a valuable experience to spend some time there and get to see the culture, forge developing relationships and explore deeper. For me, it offered the opportunity to engage in a meaningful cultural experience.”

“The whole city was my learning lab,” he added. “I’ve been able to explore and learn and, in some ways, co-learn. Watching the transformation and growth of the students in that week was remarkable.”

Gattis said all of the experiences during his seven-month stay, from the poignancy of his research to the wonder of a safari in the greater Kruger National Park area, were remarkable. He hopes it isn’t the end.

“I want to go back,” he said.