Things I wish someone told me before studying abroad

Molweni everyone! Since my last post pretty short, I figured I would make up for it. Here is a list of things I wish I knew before studying abroad.

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1. Do your research

Last semester I was sitting in the library at SU when I randomly decided to Google the university I would be studying abroad at. To my surprise there were many articles about student protests and campus shutdowns. I was shocked because no one mentioned any of this during my application, there was a vague mention of student frustration but I didn’t know things got that bad. From that experience I should have known to do more research into the political climate but I never did until I arrived.

Upon arrival I quickly learned that there are many issues within the South African government. Although Apartheid ended 26 years ago there are still remaining tensions. During my first few weeks here there were city-wide protests calling for the impeachment of South African president Jacob Zuma. Being a Journalism student, I have been fortunate enough to learn more about the complex problems surrounding the country in my class. Taking it as a learning opportunity, I became educated in concepts such as state capture.

Even on campus, I was able to learn more about the protests and what led to the shutdowns that occurred a few years ago. Students were fighting against lack of representation amongst faculty, colonialized curriculum and unfair tuition fees (Issues that occur at universities across the world, including SU). I was very impressed by how the students were able to assume power and declare that changes be made. Unfortunately, the administration has not delivered all of its promises and there have been multiple threats of protests and shut downs since I have been here.

Another issue I wish I had known about concerns the environment. South Africa is currently facing a very serious drought, something I was not aware of before coming here. Water conservation is very sacred and I have been to places where the toilets will not flush in order to save water. Don’t get me wrong – I am not complaining, just merely stating facts. It has definitely been a humbling experience and I’ve been trying to cut down my water use in the house.

2. The school system is different and this is NOT a vacation

I ignorantly thought studying abroad would be stress free and relaxing – that is not the case. First comes the semi-complicated grading system. I once got a paper marked with a 65% and I was on the verge of tears. To my surprise, one of my classmates turned to me and said “What’s the matter? You did good”. That’s because according to the South African grading system a 65% is considered a B+. Coming from a country where that would be an automatic fail, it took a while for me to get used to it. UCT is also way bigger than SU so my classes consist of lectures with 300 students and smaller tutorials that meet once a week. Lectures are not mandatory (except for one class where the professor made it mandatory after weeks of bad attendance). Coming from a school where you’re only allowed three unexcused absences per semester, I couldn’t believe it. But make sure you don’t fall into that trap of thinking you can just skip class. Trust me you will regret it. I’ve had projects and papers due every week since the semester started and I don’t see the course load easing up any time soon.

3. You won’t feel at home in South Africa just because you’re Black

Again, I acknowledge that I’m super naive for thinking that coming to South Africa would be a breeze in terms of racial issues. Like I mentioned earlier, the remnants of Apartheid continue to run rampant. I also find myself having to defend myself and my ‘blackness’ as a Black American. Many people have tried to tell me that I do not understand “the struggle” as an American. Since the global media doesn’t report on issues such as American internalized racism and police brutality, many people in other countries are unaware of the racial tensions in America. Someone once told another Black American friend of mine that she “isn’t really black”. Conversations concerning race and politics are very common in South Africa and people are not shy when it comes to voicing their opinions.

4. Seasonal difference

When you think of South Africa, you might automatically assume it will be warm. Wrong. As I mentioned in my ‘Spring Break’ post, the seasons are different. I arrived during the winter with only a bomber jacket packed and I instantly caught a cold. It’s just starting to get a little warmer and summer officially begins around the end of October. The seasonal difference also concerns the academic year. Although I’m abroad during what would be my first semester at home, it is the second semester at UCT. While the Registrar made this clear to me I did not expect the social implications of this. Since its the second semester and I would technically be considered a senior here, it has been harder to make friends at school. Most people have already established their close-knit groups and at the end of their last semester of college, many people are not looking to take in some lost American girl. Despite this I have made some amazing friends that have helped me adjust to the societal differences.

5. You gain a sense of independence

Personally, I have always been pretty independent. But there’s something about being on your own in a different country that increases that feeling. Without a meal plan, I’ve been able to prepare myself healthy meals (which are way more affordable here due to the currency exchange). Going grocery shopping by myself, with my own money just makes me feel like more of an adult than I really am. Also being of legal age in South Africa, I feel mature for having the option of choosing to go out and party every night, but deciding not to (ignore my terrible sense of humor).

6. Homesickness is real

I never experienced homesickness while in college, until now. In many ways, I’ve even experienced homesickness towards SU (which I was not expecting at all). I miss my family and friends and the time difference and terrible wifi signals are not making things any better. I developed the bad habit of staying up until 3 or 5 in the morning just to talk to people back home. Sacrificing sleep, which was much needed considering my crazy schedule. Eventually I told myself that I had to stop doing that because no one at home was missing sleep for me. This realization hurt and I tried to not take it personally, but being far away and unstable communications can put a temporary strain on your relationships back home. I didn’t expect to miss so many minuscule things. For example, I’m having a hard time finding good products for my hair (I cannot find the ones I use at home and I’ve been warned against going to salons for anything other than braids). I miss the snacks, even though some brands like Oreos and Lays can be found here, they taste very different.

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