May 16, 2012

Hillary Kane's South Africa Experience

Note: This story also appears in the May issue of the Sho'men Club Newsletter. To become a member of the Sho'men Club, click here.

Junior field hockey player Hillary Kane spent the spring semester in South Africa and writes about her experience from the southernmost country on the African continent.  Here is her experience.

I am currently three months into my South African adventure and so far, it has been the most exhilarating chapter of my life!  A few weeks ago, I was on a backpacker's bus traveling around the country for the duration of my 2 ½ week Easter holiday.  So far I have been through the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, and Kwazulu-Natal; all of which are provinces within South Africa.  Each destination was completely different than the next, making the trip a constant ever-changing thrill! The Western Cape portion of the trip consisted of exploring the cosmopolitan city of Cape Town.  In the Eastern Cape I stayed in the quaint and beachy town of Kenton, in addition to hiking the Wild Coast while staying in Coffee Bay.  In the province of Kwazulu-Natal, we explored the revitalized city of Durban.  It has been the most amazing trip, and I can only hope to continue my backpacking travels once the semester ends!

Now to address my scholastic experience… As an exchange student at Rhodes, I was quite out of the loop with the regimentation of classes and lectures.  Here, within the semester is two terms.  The first term is one set of classes, and the second term is a different set.  The last month of the semester is dedicated to examinations, which is quite different than WC's one-week exam schedule.

Furthermore, Rhodes has around 8,000 students, which is quite large compared to our small population of 1,400 making the transition to a much larger University challenging at first.  Relationships with professors are much more impersonal and all of my classes are instructed in a lecture based environment.  In addition to lectures, each class has a mandatory tutorial consisting of a smaller group of students.  This is where small-scale discussions take place and assignments are submitted.  After a few weeks of classes and tutorials, school life eventually became second nature, however it's made me realize how much I favor the close-knit community Washington College offers.  
   
Rhodes offers a number of clubs and activities to keep students involved.  As a member of the Washington College field hockey team, I was very determined to not lose touch with the game.  When tryouts for the Rhodes hockey team came around, I was excited to play and see how my skill level compared to the South African girls.  By sheer luck I made the team; hockey became the sole consistent aspect of my life and has been extremely helpful in adapting to a new environment.  Here (and everywhere besides the U.S.), hockey is a male and female sport.  The intensity level of men playing, at times within integrated teams, has made the sport exceptionally competitive.  I can honestly say that these girls could enter the world of U.S. collegiate field hockey with ease.  Playing hockey here has shown me how sports are universal; no matter what country you are from, sports can be the key to linking you into a completely different culture.
   
I have been lucky enough to travel to South Africa with four other Washington College students.  The surprisingly high number of WC students studying abroad made it possible for this semester to be recognized as a "joint" semester as opposed to an "exchange" semester.  Basically, since five or more students from the same University chose to study abroad at the same location, a number of bonus components have been made available to those students.  For us, we were entrusted to Aiden, our loyal student mentor who has graciously shown us the ropes and made himself available in times of need.  Aiden has also served as our tour guide on a number of weekend excursions that were pre-planned between Rhodes and WC's office of international affairs.  These trips included a lovely day spent at the nearby beach of Kenton on the Sea, where for the first time I swam in the Indian Ocean.  Next we spent an unforgettable weekend at Kariega Game Reserve spotting dozens of different wild animals including elephant, black rhino, kudo, nyala, eland, impala, hippo, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, and lion!  Our last excursion was a two-night stay in the Karoo, a semi-desert region 6 hours inland of the coast.  The Karoo is full of fossils and cave paintings dating back to the Mesozoic era.  Our stay enabled us to enjoy long hikes and the peaceful atmosphere of the bush.  In short, having four other Washington College students with me opened many doors to exploring parts of South Africa I may have missed if the joint exchange was not available.   
   
  Studying abroad has been a plan of mine since high school.  I never knew where exactly I wanted to travel to, but after living in SA for three months now, I know I have definitely made the right decision.  Divided into nine provinces, South Africa has eleven official languages recognized in the constitution, creating an exceptionally multi-ethnic and culturally diverse environment.  Rhodes University is located within the Eastern Cape, which is the poorest province in SA.  This is primarily due to the poverty found within the majority of the population, which consists of indigenous Xhosa people.  The Xhosa, along with Colored folk and Indians, were forced to reside in townships during the apartheid era.  Townships are severely underdeveloped residential areas that confined non-whites living near or working in white-only communities.  Unfortunately, since subsistence agricultural farming is the main source of work for the Xhosa people, this leaves little income available to move out and away from the townships, making living conditions in present day South Africa still very segregated.
   
South Africa recently surpassed Brazil in having the highest income inequality in the world.  Daunting economic crises still linger from the era of apartheid – largely poverty, the absence of economic empowerment within deprived groups, and a shortage of public transportation.  The apartheid government, run by Afrikaner-nationalist whites, segregated education, medical care, and other public services   provided black people with services severely inferior to those of whites.  The history of apartheid has hindered South Africa's development and progression.  Although it will take decades to overcome the long-term effects of apartheid, I believe South Africa has made colossal strives since the democratic elections in 1994.  This country is so extraordinarily rich with culture and beauty, that, historical hardships have become a thing of the past.   
   
Overall, studying abroad has been the most incredible experience in my life.  Immersing yourself into a completely different culture is one of the best ways to discover who you are, and who you want to be.  I'm so happy that I've gotten the chance to live on another continent for a portion of my life.  Leaving South Africa will be bittersweet, as I have had the time of my life and made so many life long connections.  I highly recommend students to take advantage of the office of international affairs, and proceed in experiencing the once in a lifetime opportunity of living abroad, traveling, meeting people from around the world, and maybe squeezing in some school work on the side!

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