Why South Africa? Written by Katrina Dank PO’ 20 Cape Town, South Africa
I often receive the question ‘why did you choose to go to South Africa to study abroad?’ I’ve known I was going abroad in Cape Town on the Globalization, Environment, and Society program since early on in my freshman spring of college. The initial inspiration came from my academic advisor Professor Taylor. Maybe it’s serendipity or maybe it’s just classic confirmation bias, but ever since that decision the stars have never ceased to align, backing up my reasoning. I whole-heartedly believe I couldn’t have picked a more perfect spot for my abroad experience.
On an academic level, the GES program presented the perfect opportunity to pursue my environmental aspirations. At Pomona, the underlying motivation behind my Chem Engineering degree is to make it an Enviro-chem Engineering degree focused on green ingenuity and sustainable solutions. However, my many pre-med and chemistry requirements have prevented me from exploring environmental topics as much as I would like. With some careful planning I was able to strategically develop a four-year schedule that allowed me to take a semester off hard science to dive fully into this passion. At the time I didn’t recognize how important the environmental topic of my program was in shaping my experience. When one studies a subject like math or chemistry, they are generally in a classroom learning from a universalized body of knowledge – this is relatively similar wherever you are in the world. However, environmental topics are inherently varied by geographical location and the best way to learn about them is to experience them. I found myself road tripping to the Kalahari Desert with 14 students and 14 PhD’s learning about the landscapes through every leg of the journey and conducting research projects for my Ecology class on the base of Devil’s Peak. I have a deep understanding of the fynbos biome, protea distribution, and water crisis – concepts inherently South African in nature. My study abroad experience immersed myself in learning about the place I was living from every required reading to each extra-curricular hike allowing me to draw broader connections and a deeper understanding every literal step of the way.
For six months I lived in a city whose predominant culture can be defined by its organization around the appreciation of every sunrise and sunset. With the exception of Spring Break, I never left South Africa. Instead, I was immersed in a single place to a point that it really did feel like home. We were up to date on all the local park concerts, downtown museum walks, and protest events. I followed all the UCT meme pages and identified with the sentiments of exhausting 9-week terms and starling lunch burglars. I rode the Jammie to school every morning alongside the students who sat next to me in class. I formed habits and became accustomed to a schedule consisting of athletics practice every day at 5:30, Effective Altruism philosophical discussion and tea every Wednesday afternoon, and Marine Explorers surf lesson outreach every Friday. It was like the first semester of Pomona all over again, learning the systems and social constructs of a university community. This time it was one with 27,000 students and 300-person lectures instead of 1,600 people and 9-person ID1’s. Not to be that cheesy abroad student who found “home” and “themselves” in such a temporary experience, but I attempted so strongly to maintain my focus in the present that the thought of not returning to my little corner room in Mowbray feels wrong. In choosing a location as isolated and remote as Cape Town, I chose a single place rather than a continent; I chose a city and community to call home.
Yet, despite the immediate comfort I found in the outdoor-oriented and laid-back community of Cape Town, one of the main reasons I sought to study in Cape Town was the discomforts it would force me to confront. My life in a relatively wealthy and suburban 100,000-person city and at the elite Pomona College have given me a skewed perspective on concepts of wealth and privilege. I do recognize and appreciate how lucky I am, but it’s difficult to comprehend the gravity. I justify my economic conscience with little actions like never buying a beverage when I go out to eat or opting for camping and hostels over hotels when traveling. It’s alarmingly easy to convince oneself that these are responsible and careful habits, to overlook that traveling and eating out are in themselves privileges. Over half of Africa still survives on less than $2 a day and I’m out here patting myself on the back for not drinking $3.50 Starbucks cappuccinos. Walking down Main Road one encounters dozens of resident beggars, traditional healers in their burlap sacks selling remedies for under a dollar, and fruit-stands with owners who trekked miles that morning to be able to bring you two avocados for a dollar; things that don’t happen on the neighborhood streets of South Hill or in the manicured village of Claremont. I came to Cape Town to confront this world outside my Westernized bubble, a shelter which has allowed me to conform easily to the white divides of street lines and neighborhood picket fences.
My study abroad experience was reflective of my individuality as an academic and as a person from the very first decision in location to saying my final goodbyes and realizing once again I would be hundreds of miles from literally everyone I had come to know. I didn’t meet up with all my best friends in foreign cities on weekends, but as a result I made best friends where I was at. While my friends were harshly welcomed with frigid winter weather, I dove into a tropical summer paradise from the get-go and watched as the days slowly grew shorter and shorter. Those in Eastern Europe found themselves navigating language barriers and odd cultural customs while, to my surprise, I found myself fitting in seamlessly with the laid-back Capetonian vibe. University of Cape Town was honestly much harder than expected. With a deflated grading system that’s rumored to fail nearly 1/3 of the freshman class, I’ve never stressed about my marks so much in my life. As a hard-science student immersed in humanities programs, I’ve also never written so much in my life. This was one of the most unexpected learning outcomes of Cape Town: how to write. I wrote more than I ever have in my academic career and I’m proud of what I produced. I not only rose to the occasion, but I continued to pursue it in my free time. I was able to record my reflections, realizations, adventures, and above all my happiness through my blog. The semester I spent in Cape Town was an exhausting whirlwind of life and academics at full capacity, but throughout it all I found myself so unbelievably happy with where I was at and how it shaped who I am. I couldn’t be happier with my decision to study abroad in South Africa.