Meet the amazing Lachlan O’Neill, who participated in the VACorps program in 2019. Lachlan has undergraduate degrees in Law &  Government & International Relations from Griffith University in Australia. He and participated in a human rights law internship in Cape Town. In this alumni interview, Lachlan shares some of the highlights from his memorable internship experience in South Africa.

Why did you decide to participate in the VACorps program? 

When I finished both of my undergraduate degrees at the beginning of 2019, I was honestly a little lost as to what to do next. I had gone straight into 5 years of university following high school and I was feeling slightly burn out having completed it. Some googling led me to the realization that an overseas internship may be what I needed to re-energize myself. While allowing me to experience a new environment and reconnect with the reasons I undertook my studies in the first place. VACorps offered all of this and more. Including the opportunity to experience and learn about South African history, culture, and learn some of the basics of languages spoken. All of this was reasons enough but once I started looking at pictures of Cape Town, I was sold on the idea.

How would you describe Cape Town to someone who has never travelled here before?

Cape Town is a place of endless natural beauty, containing a deep history and is blossoming with culture. The city center is locked between the rolling ocean and the strong cliffs of Table Mountain. There so much more to see and experience though, from Camps Bay to Kirstenbosch gardens, the wine yards to district six and Robben island. There is so much to experience, to discover and I haven’t even mentioned the amazing people who live there. Simply put it’s a place that you’ll fall in love with and wish you didn’t have to leave. 

Tell us about the work you did at your internship site. 

During my three months in Cape Town, I interned with a human rights NGO that advocates for the rights of refugees living in South Africa. In this role, I had the opportunity to work on a variety of different matters and different areas of law in which refugees in Cape town are involved. My role consisted of two main kinds of work, the first being working on cases and submissions from home or from a coffee shop. The other being attending court, parliament, or chambers to assist in the center’s cases, client interviews or to observe.

What were the highlights of your internship experience in Cape Town?

During my time with the center I was likely enough to take part in several memorable activities:

  • I was introduced to federal prosecutors who talked me through their cases.
  • Conducted interviews with clients, all of whom were refugees with their own heartbreaking stories to tell. I contributed to a law reform submission made to parliament on behalf of the center.
  • I spent a day in a private school for Zimbabwe children observing and interacting with the children. Learning about the schools struggle to stay funded and the effort of the teachers to keep the children in the school.
  • I spent a day travelling with a police detective as he went about his day working in a community home mainly to refuges. Attending crime scenes with him, being introduced to his superior officers, and listening to what their normal days are like. The number of murders, robberies, rapes that they have to deal with and the limited resources they have to do so.

My time with the center was rewarding and is an experience that I will continue to draw from for the rest of my professional career.

What were some of your favorite aspects of South African culture? 

Honestly, there are so many aspects to love from the food, the history, the love of the outdoors, and the people themselves. I had a habit of meeting interesting people when I was out and about by myself. They were all some of the nicest people I’ve met. They all have an energy and want to help that is infectious. I shared many drinks, hikes, and meals with some amazing locals who are one of the best things about Cape Town. 

What’s the most important piece of advice you’d like to give to future VACorps interns?

For me the best advice I can give is to make the most of your time there. If you have the opportunity to go on a hike, to snorkel with seals, go to Robben island, bungee jump or meet some amazing people then you have to seize it. There’s so much to see, to learn and to experience. Do the things that are outside your comfort zone, you’ll surprise yourself at what you are actually capable of. 

What have you learned about yourself through this experience?

Probably my biggest take away from my three months in Cape Town was just to enjoy the moment. It sounds simple but you can forget to do it, there are so many stresses that go with normal life that you can get overwhelmed. South Africa taught me that it’s okay to take a break for a moment and enjoy your experience.

Any predictions for what we can expect from you in 10 year’s time? 

I’m not really someone who plans to far ahead but hopefully I’ll be doing work that makes a positive change in people’s lives, hiking some more mountains and enjoying the moment with a gin or two.