When thinking about doing a semester abroad, what could be more valuable than reading an account of first-hand experience from an exchange student? Read how Nik grabbed the opportunity to study at UCT and enjoyed his exchange to the max.
Where Should I Go? Will My Credits Transfer?
While the University of California’s Education Abroad Program (EAP) has connections with 383 programs in over 40 countries around the world, my only option for study abroad in South Africa was at the University of Cape Town.
However, even if I had had access to Stellenbosch University or some other university in South Africa, I still would have chosen to go to UCT regardless; it simply has so much to offer and Cape Town is the best place for a college student to be located. My decision of what to study while I was on exchange had mostly to do with the requirements I needed for my major at my home university back in California, although I did enjoy the major-related classes I took at UCT very much. The credit transfer process was extremely easy, since EAP guarantees that all credits will transfer over. However, getting my courses to count for their respective requirements back in California was a little tricky and took some planning.
The Administrative Stuff: Visas, Money, and all that Nonsense
Getting a South African visa was a huge pain in the rear. The main reason for this is that the South African consulate in Los Angeles demanded that a physical return ticket was purchased and that I was able to show it to them in order to get the visa. The problem with this is that I wanted to travel and stick around in South Africa much longer after my program was over; however, since a return ticket was needed for the visa, I had to buy one. As this was so expensive, I had to come back much earlier than expected. I definitely wasn’t excited about that because it had cut my stay in South Africa by several months.
Since the U.S. dollar is so powerful in comparison to the South African Rand, it turned out that I had far fewer money issues than I thought I might have. I budgeted well and was able to do a lot for relatively low expenses.
Transport, Safety & Health
I already had a good idea of what to expect in terms of transport, safety, and health before coming to South Africa. Like most urban environments around the world, I of course knew that walking alone at night was a stupid thing to do. I was smart, so not even once did I feel threatened. Some of my fellow exchange students were not so fortunate, but in nearly every one of those cases, they weren’t being intelligent about avoiding such predicaments. This is something I noticed that a lot of upper class Americans from nice gated communities seem to have a hard time understanding while travelling.
Regarding health, UCT offers a great health clinic open to students to check out. It could be hard to eat healthy while on exchange, simply because of all the road trips I went go on (and thus all the gas station food we would eat). I got sick fairly often while on exchange but it was nothing serious; I just wouldn’t sleep much because of all the activities I was doing and I’m sure that played a part in it. But I had an easy time staying in shape while in Cape Town because of the great surf in the area, the running I was doing throughout the city every day, and because of the combat training I was receiving with True Krav Maga Cape Town (the Golani Security Specialists).
My programme hooked it up big time so I already had a place to stay at before I arrived in Cape Town. I know that some other exchange students had to find their own digg’s on Gumtree when they arrived but I think there was a slight lack of planning on their part or a negligence of their home universities to help them out with their respective housing searches. So I encountered no difficulty with housing. I lived in Charlton House, an infamous mansion in Mowbray that houses up to 23 (usually rowdy) exchange students. It was an absolute blast. I had the best room in that house, with an epic balcony and single room to myself upstairs.
What to Not Forget at Home
A good book to read on the plane! It’s going to be a long flight to South Africa pretty much wherever you fly from (but especially if you are flying from the United States). Also, if you’re a surfer like me, bring a thick wetsuit for that chilly south Atlantic water!
Some Tips for International Students coming to South Africa
Don’t hang out exclusively with other people from your own country. Seriously. Get out there and meet South Africans or exchange students from other parts of the world. Get yourself involved at whichever South African university you become a part of and get involved with something on campus, as well as off-campus. I was very intentional about this and I came back from just one semester with several good international friends and no regrets with how I spent my time. I was very involved in the UCT Surf Club, Mountain and Ski Club, Underwater Club, Jaboolie team (social waterpolo), FireTribe Cape Town (where I learned to fire dance), and True Krav Maga Cape Town. I had an awesome time and learned so much from these fun involvements.
Another major piece of advice for exchange students is to remember why they are coming and to always ask questions. Many exchange students enjoy the new found freedom a little too much and spend all their time partying with their immediate diggs-mates. WAKE UP! You can party anywhere, but you are in South Africa to learn; and there is much to learn! I spent much of my time in social gatherings simply asking my South African friends questions in order to pick their brains a bit and really learn how they might view the world, coming from such a different background than myself. I found it so interesting how invested every South African is regarding the future and growth of their nation… it was very fresh to hear different perspectives from Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaner South Africans on government and political leadership and things like that.
Lastly, it is very important while being on exchange to be a “YES” person. Get out of your comfort zone and do things you could never do back home. Take advantage of the peace that comes from being away from all those responsibilities back in your home country. Meet like-minded individuals and find gratitude in knowing how blessed you truly are to be able to spend a fair amount of time in a foreign country.
Part of going on exchange is leaving the familiar behind and embracing the new. Be curious, be open-minded, and absorb everything around you. Keep in mind that exchanges arranged by international organisations can limit your experience of cultural integration, because you will likely be housed with other international students and thereby miss out on a lot of interaction with locals. No one can teach you more about the way of life in SA than the locals can – and when we say locals, we mean a huge pool of communities with different cultures, languages, and worldly perspectives. Really try to make an effort to get out of the organisation limits of the exchange programme and take charge of your experience as much as possible.