1. For my STEP Project, I studied abroad at Stellenbosch University in South Africa for one month. Afterwards, I volunteered for a month at a community center in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
2. I feel changed by my study abroad experience as clique as that sounds. The experience exposed me to a host of important societal debates about the definition of progress, equality, and individual value. For example, when learning about the history of South Africa since the end of apartheid, I was exposed to the concepts of economic freedom vs. political freedom. I saw how the two are often linked in people’s minds, but they are not linked in policy strategies. I learned how perception can influence an outcome more so than ability. I learned to disconnect the merit of one’s contribution from the merit of their intentions. I witnessed how some people value reconciliation and some value progress. I saw how luxuries make life easier but not more fulfilling. These realizations had a large influence on my way of thinking, and I feel more intellectually mature because of this experience.
Additionally, my view of the world has changed because I saw the inherent similarities between cultures and people from different parts of the world. Not that I didn’t know this before, but it always surprised me at the end of the day that people acted predictably based on their environment. My view of the world changed because I learned a lot about poverty and inequality while spending my time in a normal campus environment similar to the US. My friends and I would go out to eat and individually spend in one meal the same amount that some people would make in a week. This was hard for me to reconcile at the beginning. I had never been directly exposed to this extent of poverty. South Africa, due to its history and role as an African leader, was, in all, a very unique place to study.
3. First off, the classes I took most contributed to the transformation in my mind set. In particular, the first class I took on the Political History of South Africa was powerful because of the other South African students in that class. The students provided moving accounts of the lingering effects of apartheid today. They described how their family members were killed, or their houses destroyed. Hearing these kinds of stories first hand is something I will never forget. We have many of the same debates about inequality, race, police brutality, and controversial monuments in the US, but we are handling the enduring mindset of history that is 150 years ago compared to in South Africa where it was 23 years ago. And in South Africa, some of the perpetrators are still teaching classes at Stellenbosch University today. The social debates are more poignant, the policy issues are greater and the political climate is worse than compared to the US. I learned so much just from hearing about the current events and being a part of the social tension that exists in South Africa today.
In addition, the class I took on China in Africa was extremely interesting. When we visited the Chinese consulate in Cape Town, I saw how individuals, especially on the political stage, make decisions which they genuinely believe to be beneficial while ignoring the potential negative consequences. I thought it was fascinating to see this kind of cognitive dissonance. Besides the classes and the South African students I interacted with, I learned a lot from the other international students. About 2/3 of the international students were from the US, but we all were from different parts of the country and it was fun to hear their diverse backgrounds. Plus, we had some great discussions comparing political debates in the US to South Africa.
Another aspect of the trip from which I learned a lot were the excursions we took around Stellenbosch and Cape Town. On our last week, we went on a sight-seeing trip along the southern coast of the country and we saw lions, elephants, giraffes, zebra, rhino, hippo, water buffalo, ostrich, penguins and baboons. I loved the natural beauty of the country—climbing Table Mountain and Lion’s Head had some unforgettable views. But all of this beauty and diverse wildlife was contrasted with the poverty which we saw along the way. In Stellenbosch, we lived in the college dorms on campus and we were shielded from the need around us. It was like being on any college campus in the US. But on the days when we toured around, we saw the townships and the slum communities. We saw long people lived in shacks which were the same size as the 12-seater van we were driving in. The area was littered with trash, yet almost every single house had a satellite dish connected to it. It was hard for me to understand this mindset, and the priorities of these poor people. Yet, after volunteering in a township for a month, I understand how this can be rational to them. The visible inequality in South Africa affected me because from my classes I knew it was due to the policies of apartheid. It was hard to see a bright future for a country with these stark problems. All of this I experienced just from looking out the window.
4.What I saw and learned while in South African has had a significant impact on my life because I want to be a development economist. Having a better understanding of the issues a unique country like South Africa struggles with will directly help me in my career with creating research questions. Just looking at decision making of people who live in slum communities who have a satellite dish mounted on a house made of metal sheets and cardboard would be fascinating. Also, seeing the role of the government in trying to equalize and reconcile a country which just marginalized 90% of the population a generation ago was quite informative for me in understanding policy implementation in economics. This experience furthered my interest in doing research in developing countries and my desire to find ways for these communities to build themselves up. This experience was invaluable to me professionally.
The classes I took were also valuable to me because, more than just applying towards my major, they exposed me to topics I know I never would have learned about in such depth in the United States. Additionally, being with South African students in a class about apartheid when their families had directly experienced its effects was eye-opening. Also, learning about China’s role in Africa from a South African perspective was unique. Then, understanding the perspectives of the Chinese students who told us what they hear on the news about projects in Africa was very informative. This experience, without question, diversified my education. Outside of the classroom, I believe I became more intellectually mature in understanding sensitive issue of race and poverty. I met a lot of great friends there and I feel more emotionally whole and grateful for the opportunities I have been given in the US because when compared to other people I interacted with, this type of economic liberty is rare.