SA was Hectic, Man!
If you’re seeking a study abroad experience like no other, look no further than Stellenbosch, South Africa. The mountain views from campus, friendly faces, and accessibility to so many different activities like rugby, wine tasting, surfing, hiking, climbing, safaris, and more made this experience unforgettable. If I could, I would go back in a heartbeat. As my time there was cut short due to COVID-19, there is so much I didn’t get to do there. Other parts of South Africa and the surrounding countries (Zimbabwe, Botswana, etc.) were only a short plane ride away. Though, I made the most of my time while in Stellenbosch learning how to scuba dive, surf, appreciate “the local agricultural products” (wine lol), and navigate my way in a foreign country. I have definitely gained independence and mindfulness from my time in Stellenbosch. The one thing I can highly recommend is making as many friends as possible – not just with other exchange students, but making friends with locals was key to discovering the best restaurants, hiking trails, surf spots, events, and understanding the ways of life there!
I chose Stellenbosch to have a different study abroad experience than going to Europe (not to discourage that though, Europe is amazing). I wanted to really get out of my comfort zone and experience cultures much different to mine. With 11 national languages, three capital cities, and one of the oldest landscapes in the world (truth be told, a big part of me wanted to go just for the soils), it was certainly beyond what I could’ve expected out of a short version of a semester abroad. I miss walking around and hearing at least four different languages being spoken at any time. What was interesting though is that English seemed to connect everyone as more of the ‘universal language’. Knowing that everyone there, even the friends I made who were also on exchange, was bilingual really had me feeling like an American haha, but it was fun to be the “English expert” in my house!
Another reason I wanted to go to South Africa was to experience a different racial dynamic (as the first free elections in SA were in 1994!). Something I wish the university told me was that Stellenbosch didn’t start teaching classes in English (the language that connects us) until five years ago. I had seen videos of protests that turned violent over the discriminatory nature of an Afrikaans university. Afrikaans is the language predominantly spoken by the white people. From what I read about the university before going, this problem seems to have been fixed, and upon arrival I was met by a friendly faculty who were very mindful and respectful of diversity and inclusion. However, in some of my classes, I noticed that I was missing key things because I did not speak Afrikaans. If a question was asked in Afrikaans in class, it was answered in Afrikaans. I felt a bit left behind sometimes because I didn’t speak Afrikaans which was unnerving because I knew I wasn’t the only non-Afrikaans speaker there. As a white, cis woman I only got a tiny tiny taste of the immense discrimination of the colored/black African people (as called by the locals) in SA. I was also able to see just how divided by race areas are in South Africa through volunteering at a local elementary school and in a community garden. I was truly in a “university buble” in Stellenbosch. Going to Capetown or other local areas definitely enriched my experience and showed me more of the “real” South Africa.
Choosing classes was also hectic as there was only one advisor for almost all the exchange students. There was no online program, so I didn’t know exactly what courses were being offered and at what times. It ended up being a scramble and I was only able to take two out of five classes I was hoping for (and found two more random classes to get me to 12 credit hours). If you are considering Stellenbosch, please expect this.
Overall, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. The friendships I made with my roommates and classmates, the experiences surfing, diving, hiking, sampling the “local agriculture”, and interacting with a different part of the world has changed me in so many ways for the better. If you are willing to step out of your comfort zone and have some adventures of a lifetime, Stellenbosch is the place for you. Keep in mind though how hectic it might be!