Experience yields new perspective

The world of finance isn't typically considered to be a humanitarian field. When it comes to dollars and cents, things tend to be cut and dried – particularly in corporate circles where the bottom line reigns supreme.

So when Michael Sit (BMgt '10), a finance major with a minor in social responsibility, decided to embark on an international co-op in South Africa, he was more or less expecting to broaden his understanding of the profession, and to earn some valuable work experience. As it happened, Sit got so much more.

After arriving in September 2010, Sit went to work straight away for two not-for-profit organizations in Capetown. The first was an agency called Wola Nani, which provides developmental services and support to women and children afflicted with HIV and AIDS. The second was a social investment company by the name of Tembeka, which works to promote development in impoverished South African communities by providing loans at reasonable interest rates.

Michael Sit
Alumnus Michael Sit gained a new perspective on life after his work experience in South Africa.

Given his area of expertise, Sit's work was mostly behind the scenes, handling the various financial dealings for both organizations. Even so, the exposure he did have to the organizations' public side affected Sit in ways he never expected.

"When I started the jobs in Capetown, I had certain educational and professional goals that I wanted to accomplish," says Sit. "I did manage to achieve those, but the route getting there was much different than I anticipated. I'd only previously worked in the corporate sector, and never outside North America, so working for non-profit organizations in South Africa was a huge change."

Having studied social responsibility in the classroom, experiencing its application in a real corporate setting proved to be enlightening on both a professional and personal level.

"I really enjoyed working for both organizations," says Sit. "I look at everything I do very differently now. To do that sort of work for people who really need the assistance – it put my heart at peace."

Sit spent just three months in South Africa and the learning curve was steep. The cultural differences he experienced, such as being exposed to extreme poverty and blatant racism, were a startling wake-up call.

"The social climate in South Africa today is very much what it would have been like in the United States in the 1960s," says Sit. "The lingering effects of Apartheid have an enormous impact on the mentality of the black population. These people were treated as second-class citizens for generations, and getting above that takes time."

Sit says that a large portion of the population in South Africa is still marginalized and very poor. Despite their hardships, he describes the people as open and welcoming.

"I met so many brave and amazing people," says Sit. "Most everyone was very kind and accepting, regardless of how difficult their situation was. Nobody ever judged me by the colour of my skin, or by where I came from. They accepted me for who I am because that's all they've ever wanted for themselves."

Sit remembers telling people about his trip to South Africa, and the generally negative feedback he received. Friends and family were often quite opinionated about his choice of destination, and it weighed on his expectations. The preconceptions Sit developed about the country quickly dissipated when he got there. He was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and great diversity of the South African landscape, but more than anything, he was overcome by the kindness and hospitality of the people. It's something he'll take with him the rest of his life.

"I went from feeling cautious wherever I went to feeling right at home very quickly," says Sit. "The people I ran into were all more than willing to help me find my way around and feel comfortable. I was there to help the people of South Africa, and they ended up helping me."

This story originally appeared in the Legend. For a look at the February issue of the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.