Brandeis Inside Out: Joel Burt-Miller '16

Study abroad in South Africa taught a pre-med Posse Science Scholar to find common ground in difference.

Joel Burt-Miller

On a mountaintop in South Africa, an instrumental version of J. Cole’s “Love Yourz” playing on his headphones, Joel Burt-Miller began to hear voices. “I can do things, but they won’t let me do it!” said one. “I’m strong! I am a human being,” said another. “Don’t let nobody ever tell you you can’t do,” went a third.

These phrases became the lyrics for a rap song Burt-Miller later wrote, “Mirror To Society.” They were also the voices of people he’d interviewed for a research project while studying abroad junior year.

Raised in the Bronx by immigrant Jamaican parents, Burt-Miller came to Brandeis on a Posse Science scholarship, a highly competitive program that recruits talented underrepresented minorities interested in science. He majored in biology and Health: Science, Society and Policy. After graduating, he will travel to India as a Fulbright scholar. Longterm, he plans to become a doctor.

Withfunds he received as the Joel Friedland '76 Study Abroad Scholar, Burt-Miller spent several weeks with a host family in Sandanezwe, a rural town in the mountainous eastern part of the country. His host-brother, Mduduzi, or Mdu for short, had started The Disability Special Project, a local farm run by the town’s disabled residents. Mdu limped and had scars on his legs due to the polio he suffered as a child. Other workers were amputees, epileptics or mentally ill.

Before Burt-Miller went to South Africa, he mostly knew the disabled as people who struggled to get on and off the bus or subway. His perspective changed once he befriended the workers at The Disability Special Project. He learned to break ground with a pickaxe from a man with one arm. He interviewed a teenager whose family barely cared about him. “They think I’m useless, I’m nothing,” he told Burt-Miller. “I could feel his pain,” Burt-Miller says.

They spoke isiZulu, a dialect of Zulu, and some rudimentary English at the farm, and Burt-Miller found it hard to communicate at times. "I felt like I was disabled," he says. It led to a revelation, he says: "Everyone has a disability. It’s just the thing that makes you different from everybody else."

On his last day in Sandanezwe, the workers threw a party for Burt-Miller. He performed his rap song. "Everyone crowded around me with big smiles as I began," he wrote in an essay about his experience. "At the end of my rendition, the garden members all clapped and cheered. New life was deposited into the space. Seeds were planted both literally and figuratively in the garden that day."

And seeds were planted on this side of the Atlantic, too, when Burt-Miller presented a paper earlier this year on the farm experience at the Human Development Conference at the University of Notre Dame.

Burt-Miller was the Joel Friedland '76 Study Abroad Scholar.

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