Now that I’ve been home a few weeks (didn’t mean to wait this long for my final post…oops), I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my time spent in South Africa. I”m just going to respond directly to WWU’s prompts for this post because I feel like their questions address everything I want to talk about pretty well.
- What were some of your biggest takeaways from your international experience?
What you put into your trip is what you’ll get out of it. Some of us in South Africa were expecting to leave completely different people. We might have been looking for enlightenment and adventure that would change our lives. Some people were even hoping to feel some sort of spiritual connection by returning to where early humans first lived. These were all great goals; however, South Africa, or any other place you can travel to, isn’t some magical location that will guarantee a complete metamorphosis of yourself. If you want the experience to change your life, you’re probably going to have to create opportunities to help that process along. These can be things like interacting with the community more and going out of your way to learn more about the culture. Aim for immersion, right? Going out and partying every night is great too, but it probably won’t have quite the same transforming impact. Your trip is whatever you want AND actively work for it to be.
Also, people everywhere are amazing. It was never hard to find some kind of common ground even though we all came from completely different backgrounds and have been through vastly different experiences. Sometimes it was the smallest things that allowed me to connect with a stranger, like sharing a smile with someone when a puppy runs by. Despite our differences, we’re all human.
- What advice would you pass along to other interested students considering studying abroad?
Stay as long as you possibly can! I experienced so much in those five weeks, but I felt like I could have seen so much more had I stayed longer. This was especially true since I was there during Stellenbosch’s winter break – that’s another piece of advice. If possible, go during the regular quarters or semesters so that you are in the “normal” curriculum. I was taking classes specifically for international students, so I did not have the opportunity to integrate with the student body very much. Lastly, be open-minded and say yes to almost everything people ask you to do, whether it’s a new restaurant or something like shark cage-diving (within reason – make safe choices). It’s scary going out of your comfort zone, but almost all of my best memories from the trip stemmed from just going for it and not overthinking things. I think the few times I said no were either because it was too expensive or I needed to stay in and take care of my mental or physical health (bungee jumping was the exception – that was pure fear).
- Is there anything you would do or plan differently based on your experience?
I’d stay longer! It wasn’t practical for me financially or with my class scheduling to do a full semester abroad, but I wish I’d at least extended my stay a week or two at the end. Hostels are relatively inexpensive, there were still plenty of things in Stellenbosch I wanted to do, and I had a lot of friends in South Africa to do those things with. Hindsight is 20/20. Overall, I’m extremely thrilled with my trip. The only other thing I’d change is maybe taking care of my health a bit better. I haven’t mentioned this before because I was trying to focus on the positives of my trip, but I ended up with an awful cold and ear/throat infection for my final couple weeks in South Africa. I went home with torn cartilage from coughing so violently. I’m actually still waiting on everything to heal. Maybe sleeping a little bit more and drinking less could have helped me avoid this, but who knows. It’s tempting to say I’d take better care of myself if I did this again, but I also had so much fun that it’s tough to say.
- Have you considered going abroad again or researching international internships and careers?
Absolutely. I don’t think I’m ready to entirely move to another country for years. I’d love to go abroad again temporarily, though. As I’m looking into future plans for after I complete a bachelor’s degree, the opportunity to intern abroad or participate in an exchange program during grad school is something to consider. It feels less intimidating to go abroad again now that I have some experience traveling.
- How do you plan to “Pay it forward” to the greater local community?
The simplest way for me to pay it forward is to support other students interested in traveling abroad. While I’m not in a position right now to support students financially, I can offer advice and encouragement to those interested in traveling. This is especially true for people considering “non-traditional” locations like South Africa since there aren’t always very many people to talk to about it. Also, seeing the racism, poverty, and inequality in South Africa served as an important reminder to work actively in whatever community I’m in towards improvement. Every action like reducing waste or donating money or time to one’s community helps.
- In reflection of your experience before, during, and after your program, can you put into words what this experience has meant to you.
Oof. That’s not easy. Like most people probably say, it has meant the world to me. I’m not really sure how else to put it. I spent years saving up money to do this. There were months of stressful planning, hesitation, and even fear. Now there’s been weeks of painful coughing and waiting to get back to my normal routine (plus that one unfortunate day in Frankfurt at the beginning…). This trip was absolutely amazing, but it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park to make happen. I’d gladly go through every single negative aspect again for a trip half as good. I cannot express just how thankful and appreciative I am that I was able to study abroad.