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The Study Abroad Experience in South Africa

If you walk towards the post office while in the SSU, you will pass a large mural covered in photos of Siena students who have studied in countries around the world. It includes destinations such as Vietnam, Australia and Scotland; each person having amazing stories of their time there. Studying abroad was an experience I knew I could not pass up while I was in college. I wanted to push my limits, learn a new culture and have life changing experiences I knew I would not be able to receive anywhere else. So with the help of Siena’s Study Abroad Office, I jumped on a plane to the Western Cape of South Africa for the spring of my junior year.

I lived in Stellenbosch: home of the third best university in the country, five minutes away from beautiful mountains,  15 minutes from award-winning vineyards, 30 minutes from the beach, and just an hour away from one of the capitals and best-known city, Cape Town. When I was not studying South Africa’s political and cultural changes or learning how to speak Afrikaans, one of the 11 official languages, I was climbing mountains, shopping at local markets, volunteering at the nearby primary school, going on chocolate tastings and visiting animal preservation areas. The people I met were some of the kindest and most genuine individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

I was able to go on many inspiring trips while in South Africa. Some were small day trips such as visiting Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was kept as a political prisoner for 18 years before he became president. Other trips were longer like the Garden Route, a 190 mile stretch along the northern coast where we traveled for 10 days. Some of the highlights included: bungee jumping off the world’s highest bridge jump, feeding elephants at an animal sanctuary, hiking through a cave, interacting with monkeys, kloofing (South African canyoning) and, finally, going on safari. Witnessing dozens of elephants marching to a watering hole is something I will never forget. However, my favorite trip was a long weekend in the Cederberg Mountains. It was a little oasis within an arid mountain during the hottest month of the year. We braaied, or barbecued, every night and hiked during the day. We went cliff jumping, had a private wine tasting, saw cave paintings that were over 10,000 years old and viewed Orion’s Belt through a telescope at the nearby observatory. The sky at night was so dark that you could see hundreds of meteors and the thick band of the Milky Way’s stars. Cederberg was one of the most memorable places I have ever been.

Studying abroad is not as difficult as it may seem to be. Typically a student will travel through a program that acts as a liaison between you and your host school. Some are more involved in the planning while others leave more of the preparing to the student. I chose the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) as the program to go abroad with. They offered many resources to streamline the scheduling such as finding flights, providing housing, and organizing trips while I was in South Africa. Siena offers abroad opportunities in 55 countries for all majors with other programs as well including CIEE, SIT Study Abroad and CGEE so there is something for everyone. My biggest tip to you is to stay on track of deadlines and try to be early for everything. Between sending information to your program, applying for a visa and supplying paperwork to the Study Abroad Office, due dates can easily sneak up on you and add unnecessary stress to the process. If you do find yourself confused by anything, the office is always there to answer any questions.

While going abroad may seem to be an overwhelming and impossible task, it is probably one of the most exciting and memorable things you can do while in college. The amazing experiences you will have while in another country are absolutely worth any doubts that you might have. Nothing can compare to learning about a culture firsthand while living in its country. Going abroad also encourages you to continue to travel, whether it is around the world or in your own backyard. If studying abroad is just not feasible for you, then consider one of the many service projects or classes that Siena offers which travel to different countries. Studying abroad can be for everyone regardless of year, major or personality; you just need to find your destination match.