I have now been in Stellenbosch for an entire week! The first few days were a blur of unpacking, figuring out names and currency, and getting lost. Also, it took until Monday to get wifi on campus, and I only got the hard-wired internet to my computer working Thursday. I was very pleasantly detached from the world for a while. My first couple days were pretty relaxed. Orientation wasn’t until Sunday, so for the rest of Friday and Saturday I was free to do what I wanted. People were trickling in all the time, and it was great! I was always meeting new people, both other international students and some Stellenbosch students who were in the program to show us the ropes. Stellenbosch has felt very welcoming. Since everyone speaks English in the businesses, things like shopping and eating at restaurants have been easy. There’s always a plethora of languages around me. A cashier might speak to me in English, and then immediately switch to Afrikaans to shout directions to someone else, and then when I leave they might switch to conversation in Xhosa or another one of South Africa’s 11 languages.
My favorite thing about Stellenbosch is how beautiful everything is. We’ve been blessed with fairly decent weather despite it being winter. It switches between rainy/windy to sunny just about every day. Temperatures have been anywhere from 40-60 degrees Farenheit. When it’s clear, there are beautiful views of the hills around us. I’ve got a pretty decent view just from my room (excuse the dirty window):
The hills almost remind me a little bit of my hometown Wenatchee. Walking down Victoria street on the edge of campus, it looks like fall (my favorite season) with all of the orange leaves drifting around the ground. I also just got back from an amazing hike up part of Stellenbosch mountain as well that further emphasized the natural beauty of South Africa.
The people here are also amazing, both international students and Stellenbosch students. Everyone bonded very quickly our first couple nights here over drinking and dancing. I had some of the Stellenbosch students help me learn Sokkie, a South African style of dance, at the opening dinner Sunday night. They do a really great job of giving us insight into Stellenbosch life. They also come from different places both in South Africa and from other countries in Africa, so there are many different cultures to learn about while I’m here. They’ve made it very clear that you can drive half an hour away from Stellenbosch and see a completely different lifestyle. Understanding that there is an infinite number of experiences and perspectives in South Africa has been emphasized by many people here. My roommate Grace is a pharmacy student from Singapore, so I also have the pleasure of comparing and contrasting university life with her.
My classes have been great so far! I took the Political History of South Africa this week. Classes are only a week long, but we meet about seven hours a day for a mixture of lecture and discussion. This week we get Friday off since we’re going to Robben Island Saturday as our fifth day of “class”. I had an exam yesterday, and a paper due next Friday that I should probably be working on right now actually. Everything seems pretty relaxed. It’s clear the focus here isn’t memorization of information but truly learning about the situation and visiting different perspectives and opinions surrounding the material.
The locals that I have interacted with are extremely friendly. Many people are interested in what’s going on when a couple dozen loud Americans with a handful of Singapore students and a few Germans take over a restaurant. There’s over 100 people in my program, about 50 of which are American, so even when we split up the groups are large. They are curious to know about us and where we come from, and most people are very open to sharing about themselves, too. The Stellenbosch students are very open and honest. It doesn’t take long for our conversations to get opinionated and even controversial when discussing topics like apartheid, but they don’t hold back. It’s very refreshing compared to the US where people are sometimes too concerned with political correctness to really let the conversation flow.
I honestly haven’t experienced any culture shock yet. Stellenbosch is a lot more western than I was expecting. I’ve eaten a lot of sandwiches, and there is a shocking number of burger restaurants. I have found a restaurant in the student center with bunny chow though – can’t wait to try it next week! I’m curious to see how this changes in the coming weeks when the initial high wears off, but the familiarity to certain aspects here has been a comforting surprise.
Racism is more prevalent in Stellenbosch than what I went in thinking. Apartheid was not long ago; some of the Stellenbosch students in this summer program were personally affected by it when it was in place, and remnant beliefs still affect everyone today. I was ignorant to think that people could have completely moved on already considering both the social and economic impacts it had on different groups of people. I wish I had come into this slightly more knowledgable about South African history so that I knew what to expect a little bit better, but it was also nice to hear the history here. I’m not entirely sure if what I could’ve learned in US schools would have been quite so brutally honest as what was covered here. I didn’t feel it was biased, but again the South African honesty shone through in class.
This upcoming weekend/week is going to be busy and fun! Tonight is a wine and cheese social to welcome a group of Australian students that just arrived, and Saturday I have the Robben Island trip. Sunday I have a shark cage-diving adventure if weather permits that I am absolutely excited (terrified) for, and then my first braai (basically a barbecue but supposedly better according to every South African I’ve asked). The next week is the biodiversity class I’ve been looking forward to. I’m already so thankful the trip has been as wonderful as it has. Now I’m just hoping that homesickness or culture shock doesn’t hit me too hard in the weeks to come.