South Africa is an incredible place and the time I spent there has had such an impact on me it's hard to decide how I should begin explaining my experience. But one thing is for sure, I would recommend Stellenbosch to anyone who is considering studying abroad. Having been back in the U.S. for about four months now I can honestly say that even though I enjoyed every minute of my time in South Africa, I never realized how fast a semester would go by and how much I would miss it. Living in an international dorm I made friends from all over the world and from all different parts of the States. Although it sounds extremely cliché, I must confirm that the well known traveler's line is true, as you live with new people and new ideas you not only expand your knowledge of other places and people but also your country and yourself. The South Africans are warm and welcoming people and many of these self-discovering discussions took place around the braai (a.k.a. barbeque) pit, while sampling some of the locally made wine or the brandy and coke that many of us sipped skeptically at first but acquired quite a taste for with the 5 rand pitcher specials at R&G. Being one of the oldest cities in South Africa and a prestigious university town, Stellenbosch has a very interesting history and school pride runs high. Like any university town, life seems to revolve around the student body and there is plenty of studying followed of course by some intense partying.
At this point some may be thinking new friends, partying, studying, and self-growth, great, but I've already done that at my home university. Why go half-way around the world for something I can do here in the U.S.? South Africa is an ideal place to become a part of a country that is currently in a great transition. Although apartheid officially ended over ten years ago there is still much social change taking place and much to be done before the wrongs that took place are rectified. The international office at Stellenbosch has implemented a program that allows students to volunteer twice a week at Ikaya Primary School in the neighboring township of Kayamandi. University students spend one day teaching English and the other organizing sports or crafts for the children to participate in. This was probably my favorite part of the time I spent in Africa because regardless of all the exam anxiety, rushing to finish papers, or any drama in the dorms, all of which seem to inevitably crop up at university, the children in Kayamandi were a constant source of vivacity. They had very few material possessions but were so spirited and happy to have "friends" come and help them learn and play that they inspired and put a smile on everyone's face. Stellenbosch University is also expanding their service to include teaching positions at a local township high school. This was an extremely rewarding and eye-opening experience that taught me more about culture, people, poverty, politics, and life than I could ever have learned in any classroom.
Academics, social life, and service aside, being to experience the African continent is something I'm extremely thankful that I decided to do at this point in my life. As a result of the turbulent colonial histories that many of the countries (South Africa included) have experienced, there seems to be a much more laid-back vibe and roll with the punches attitude among all South Africans, even in the larger cities. It is something that takes some getting used to, but is much appreciated once you learn to just kick back and enjoy the ride and all the natural beauty that surrounds you. Cape Town is a great example of this. It is bordered by the beautiful and humbling Atlantic Ocean on one side and the majestic Table Mountain on the other. It is no wonder that South Africans are content to watch the sunset while drinking "sun downers" as the beautiful star studded sky emerges. Driving just 30 minutes down the N1 will take you from this effervescent city to the beautiful, vineyard dominated wine-country of Stellenbosch. The Jonkersoek Nature Reserve provides beautiful trails for day hikes, backpacking excursions, or mountain biking, all of which provide surreal stimulation for the senses. If all of this isn't enough to keep anyone busy for more than a five month semester, there is much more to see and do in South Africa: a safari in Kruger National Park, a river trip on the Orange River, the mines in Kimberly, the hiking and hostel tour of the beautiful Wild Coast, the Lesotho highlands, or a bus tour through Swaziland. Once you've gotten your fill of all the sights and sounds here, South Africa provides the perfect jumping off point for many other African countries like Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.
This is just a microcosm of what I saw, learned, and loved about South Africa. I hope that through sharing my experience, Africa has earned a new place in the minds of all who read this, and that my words will inspire others to go and heck out Africa for themselves. My semester in South Africa was an indescribable experience in my life and I cannot wait to return.