After (finally) finishing the onboarding requirements from the Office of Education Abroad and completing my 200-hour non-profit internship with the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Charlotte, I sat at dinner in my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with a friend and it finally hit me … I have to sit on a plane for 15 hours to get to South Africa. Maybe I should have processed that sooner, but I hit the ground running after the last day of class with Nurse Aide I night classes and an internship during the day. But on top of that, I had an even bigger problem to face, reading Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom in two weeks. For those of you who do not know, it is a 600-page autobiography, but what is a college freshman really good at? Procrastinating! Nelson Mandela was a South-African anti-apartheid activist and the countries’ first black president. His autobiography gave us an insight to how South Africa operated as a country and a brief history of the entirety of his renowned life. Reading this book allowed us to dip our toes into the history we would be surrounded by for the next four weeks. Having a busy summer allowed me to come into my first collegiate study abroad experience with no expectations. I purposefully did not look up any of our excursions because I felt that it would spoil my experience and make me less amazed in the moment. I wanted to relive the feeling I had going into NOLS: I had no expectations but challenged myself to get the most out of it. Now, is that the best excuse for waiting to pack until 3 a.m. on the day of my flight? Probably not. But as I said, I wanted to metaphorically feel my NOLS experience again.
From the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport to Cape Town International Airport was 15 hours of movies, reading and anticipation. We arrived well past dinnertime and it was night time; it was hard to grasp that I was on a new continent. In the morning while on our first outing, the scenery shocked me. We were surrounded by greenery and never-ending rainbows the whole month. The first two weeks were spent in Erica Hall alongside other international students while the last two weeks we resided in Bonne Esperance, a beautiful bed and breakfast. The first couple of days were an adjustment period but I was simply a bundle of excitement knowing that my first study abroad experience would be with an amazing group of scholars, freshly graduated alumni, Dr. Smith and Dr. Zablotsky. As an African-American with no knowledge of my ancestry past the 1900s, I found great satisfaction in being on the continent of Africa. We spent every day walking the small city of Stellenbosch and ubering outside of city limits to explore things like museums, restaurants and regional staples. On the first day I made a promise to myself to experience this small section of Africa to the fullest because centuries ago my ancestors were stripped from their homes and to this day many of us are far removed from our original culture, and reflecting on it now, I believe that I did just that.
The last time I studied abroad, I lived with a host family and took classes with local students in Montevideo, Uruguay for nearly five months. I naïvely assumed that one month in a more controlled and structured environment would not present as many opportunities and challenges as my independent semester had. I very quickly realized I was wrong, and instead understood that these four weeks could be some of the most memorable and educational of my life, but only if I chose to really show up and be present. I was surrounded by some of the most fascinating history, incredible people, and breathtaking landscapes in the entire world, and all I really had to do was embrace the experience and engage in the material. Sounds simple enough, right?
Being confronted with that much culture and history in such a short time span can be challenging and a bit jarring, especially when that content is as shocking as South Africa’s history of apartheid and oppression. I sometimes found myself leaving class frazzled and lethargic from all of the academic, theoretical, and/or challenging conversations we had just engaged in for several hours. Yet I showed up to class every day more excited to participate and learn in this unique environment than I typically ever was in a more traditional setting. Even though much of the material was out of my area of study, I quickly understood how special it was to cover topics like healthcare or socio-spatial geography in a new place where it mattered immensely. All of this academic excitement, combined with the opportunity to experience a new and beautiful country with some of my closest friends, did drain me in a way I hadn’t experienced before. It is not always in my nature to slow down and admit when I need a little more support, but I pushed myself to be honest with myself and some of my closest friends on the trip, just having a conversation about what we were feeling or experiencing, the good and the bad and the in-between. This may sound rather basic, but intentionally checking in with myself and others allowed me to bounce back with more energy and focus to really get everything I could out of this short program. I learned a great deal from this experience in the academic setting, but I also grew a great deal as a student, a leader, and a person, and that is what I am especially grateful for.
South Africa not only served as my first study abroad experience but also my first time out of the country. It helped to answer a lot of introspective questions such as “Who am I when all comfortable context is removed?” or, “How does the perception of me live up to how I see myself?”. I went in wanting all the culture shock, all of the uncomfortable moments of pause, and all of the reflection to put in my carry-on and take home with me. I left with everything I wanted, including a new South Africa sweatshirt. I can’t say I have fully put all of the pieces together to figure out what my month in the Western Cape meant, but I have a more secure sense of who I am.
I am someone who learns about the South African HIV crises in a 9:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. class and then talks to a local student about what that looks like on their college campus. I am someone who asks the waiter for their name and goes back to the restaurant a couple of times a week to say hi and chat. I am someone who learns best when someone feels comfortable enough to sit and tell me what my textbooks mean in real life. We took a cooking class with a Cape Malay woman who walked us through her town, history, and home. Then sat us at her family’s dining room table to have the first home-cooked meal I’d had in three weeks. My spirit and stomach were full. I felt the reactions of people when I asked their names and about their lives. I felt their reactions when I listened and asked questions. I felt myself become clearer and clearer in the Stellenbosch University dorm room mirror just as my comfort zone got wider and deeper. I was soaking it all in, I let South Africa paint itself on the insecure canvas I began the trip with. I watched the town I was in embrace me until I had to let go. I drove away on our last day with a full spirit, a full journal, and a heavy carry-on. It was then I realized I had nothing to give to South Africa, but gratitude in return. But as an ode to the people, history, and places it gave me, I carry myself a little bit differently now. My stride is a little longer and my head is a little higher. Strangely enough, a different world, culture, language, and geography made me feel like myself again. Walking away from this experience, I can confidently say that when all context is removed, I am actually the most me I’ve ever been.