Alumni Stories - Claire DesBrisay, St. Clement's School

By Sam on 21/02/2017

Claire DesBrisay, a former pupil of St. Clement’s Schooll in Canada, now lives and works in South Africa, a country that she first visited on exchange nine years ago through her school’s membership of Round Square.  Claire is currently Director of Communications for Smile Africa Foundation (SAF) a grassroots NGO that originated in Accra, Ghana, and promotes STEM in Africa through volunteer based initiatives.

Claire recalls how the experiences of her 6-month exchange to Round Square school, St Cyprian’s, in Cape Town, “shaped who I am today”. She says: “The school allowed me to explore all aspects of the local community and organised volunteering opportunities at a local public school and children’s hospital. It was really difficult to see the contrast between the experiences of the rich and poor; differences which only seemed to be heightened by the fact that these groups were living in close proximity. It was so different to my experience of living in Toronto and made me think deeply about where my place is in the world, what I can do to make a difference, and what I can do to educate other people about these issues.”

Back in Canada at St. Clement’s Schooll, Claire had already been encouraged to develop an interest in social issues within an international context. Prior to her exchange, she had attended a leadership conference at Round Square school Gordonstoun in Scotland, and recalls how the opportunity enabled her to meet people from different countries and learn about their lives back home. But what was most evident to her from those interactions was the similarities rather than the differences in the student delegates’ outlook on life: “I remember enjoying the cultural evening, which celebrated the many different identities of the students at the conference, but my abiding memory is the feeling of surprise that despite our different backgrounds, there were many similar values and interests. It helped me put into perspective the reality that even though we have grown up in different places, what we share is a universal humanity.”

The conference was also helpful in building Claire’s confidence, a skill that she would later draw upon in her studies, when undertaking challenging work placements in environments such as prisons and refugee centres: “At that time, I was confident only in certain settings such as small groups, amongst other girls. But the conference put me in a very different environment and encouraged me to debate, socialise and present to much larger and more diverse groups. I had to step outside my comfort zone.”

Building on this experience, Claire has continued to push herself beyond her comfort zone, not least through her voluntary work, including a stint in a prison working on a ‘restorative justice’ project. The role included counselling inmates about to be released and running workshops to help them reflect on the impact of their actions on the affected families and community. “When leading the workshop sessions, I had to keep a diplomatic atmosphere to neutralise any possible aggression from inmates representing different gangs,” she says. “The divide was such that some room-mates had not spoken to each other for the entirety of their sentence, yet were forced to speak for the first time in these sessions.”

Leaving school with an ambition to make a positive difference in the world, Claire went on to read Conflict Studies and Human Rights at the University of Ottawa. The course required completion of a number of work-based placements, for which Claire returned to Africa. 

Working first in Tanzania, in support of women affected by HIV, she helped establish micro-businesses and educate the children of families affected by HIV.  Claire recalls that village life could be lively: “I remember teaching on my first day to the sound of a business owner slaughtering chickens outside. The experience was definitely an eye-opener.”

Claire returned to Cape Town for her next project, where she worked as a counsellor at a refugee centre. This inspired her to take a Masters in ‘Philosophy, Justice and Transformation’ at the University of Cape Town exploring the outcomes of civil war and solutions for re-building nations, healing divisions and reconciling civil war factions.

Whilst studying, she undertook a placement at the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) where she helped refugees from countries such as Somalia, Rwanda and Zimbabwe integrate into South African society.

Drawing on the Round Square IDEALS that she had been exposed to  during her Round Square experiences, she felt prepared for what was to follow working with the UNHCR and seeing the reality experienced by millions of refugees. Each story in her daily caseload was filled with complexity and emotion, with a focus on shared humanity beyond borders, culture and religion. She became committed to defending human rights and the rule of democracy, to creating positive change in the world and helping people reach their full potential by protecting their rights and security.

Claire prepared refugee status referrals, taught English and offered support through dispensing meal vouchers. She says: “There was a huge amount of misunderstanding about the refugee community in South Africa. The people that I met were often highly skilled and had been forced to flee impossible political situations back home. In learning of their stories, I became more aware of the political issues elsewhere in Africa, and became determined to improve my knowledge in this area.”

Due to the disruptions caused by the student protests and riots that gripped South African universities in 2016, Claire did not complete her Masters, though plans to do so in the future. She remained in South Africa, however, and joined Ineng as a Strategic Advisor. The not-for-profit aims to influence public policy to create economic opportunities for entrepreneurs living in townships to help lift people out of poverty. Claire helped organise events, draft parliamentary submissions and wrote articles for the website: “I remember innovations large and small. There was one entrepreneur who created a ‘dry bath’ product as a solution to the scarcity of water in our area. Another set-up a one-man delivery service, using his bike to collect and distribute medication for those unable to travel to medical centres.”

Moving on from Ineng, where she remains an advisor, Claire joined non-profit, Smile Africa, in 2017 to lead an initiative to create STEM based after-school clubs in government high schools. She says: “The World Economic Forum ranks South Africa last in Science and Maths performance in schools. Schools are under resourced which means we need to work even harder to utilise available resources.”

Claire is currently developing lesson plans and content for the website to guide and support schools in their efforts to overcome these challenges. In one example she shares, a school lesson plan outlines how pupils can create mini robots using a toothbrush head and motor from an old cell phone, “Resources that students could collect from their community.” 

In support of the schools, Claire’s remit also includes reaching out to universities and corporations with expertise in STEM areas, inviting them to act as mentors: “We feel strongly that many of our barriers can be overcome with the help and support of inspirational mentors, showing students where their STEM skills can take them, and inspiring them to study these subjects.”

Inspired by the international experiences she gained through her education, Claire’s continuing career looks set to be shaped by her passion to make a difference in the wider world and take on a challenge. “Kurt Hahn’s message – ‘there is more in you than you think’ - has stayed with me,” she says. “When you find yourself in a difficult situation, you can get through it.” And to the current generation of Round Square students, she has a simple message, “Seize opportunities and don’t be scared to put yourself out there.”



If you are an Alumnus of a Round Square school and would like to share your story as part of our project, we would love to hear from you! Please get in touch via our web site.