Note: This story also appears in the December/January issue of the Sho'men Club Newsletter. To become a member of the Sho'men Club, click here.
Junior men's rower Chris Carrara spent the fall semester in South Africa and writes about his experience from the southernmost country on the African continent. Here is his experience.
It is difficult to know exactly what you are getting yourself into when you apply to study abroad. Study abroad veterans may tell you about their experiences and offer advice on surviving the transition, however, the experience you're about to embark on isn't quite real until you're on the massive 767 Boeing, halfway across the Atlantic.
Upon arriving in Grahamstown I bought a good rain jacket. The weather of South Africa, and specifically Grahamstown is constantly changing. There is a saying that you can get all four seasons in one day in Grahamstown; they weren't lying. After moving into my dormitory at Rhodes University I met with the 17 other exchange students that I would spend the next semester with. There were some, like me from the United States, but others were from across the globe including Australia, France, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, and Italy. These 17 different students soon became my best friends as we spent meals, weeknights, and countless trips together.
However, the semester was not all fun and games. First, the university structure here is quite different from that of Washington College. Going from a school of under 1,500 to 8,000 was a bit of a transition. Classes are a little more spread out, the number of students in each class was bigger- averaging 35 to 40 students per lecture, and the relationship with professors was much less personal than at WAC. Classes at Rhodes generally met four times a week, with addition to "Tutorials", which were smaller groups that met once a week with a student teacher based on helping clarify the material we were studying at the moment. Personally, the classes felt like less paper work, however much more emphasis was put on Final Exams than back home. Here, we have an entire month to take our exams, and they generally counted as at least 50 percent of our overall grade for the class.
Residence Life has its similarities and differences. Similarly, there are generally two sub-wardens to a residence, who perform the same basic roles as an R.A. However Residence's at Rhodes have Wardens, which are essentially professors that live in the building with you. For example, my Warden taught chemistry and had his entire family-wife, two children, and even a dog- live in an "In-Res" apartment next door to me. The students seemed quite dependent on the Warden on, which, house activities they could perform, which was very different for me. Each of the boys' dormitories had a bar built in, which was opened two nights a week, as something optional, granted the warden allowed it to proceed.
Outside of the Academic and Residence Life at RU, there was much to do. There were numerous clubs to join ranging from mountain climbing to wine tasting, and there were various Community Engagement activities. For my community involvement I volunteered twice a week at the boys shelter, Eluxoweni. Here, boys ranging from ages 12-18 could live in a positive environment while they focused on school and their futures. While working with them, I formed relationships as a mentor to many of the boys, as I helped them train for a soccer tournament against other homes in the region. Off of the soccer field I made strides to speak English with the kids, as it is the main language of business here, and it is an essential instrument in gaining access to a competitive job market.
From hiking and having cookouts in the wilderness off the Bushman's River to weekend trips to Jeffrey's Bay - South Africa's surf capital - I used my time wisely to see the country around me. I was lucky enough to have my family visit me during our Spring Vacation in early September. We went to Kariega Game Reserve, where we went on game drives and were able to view lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, antelope, and many other native animals in the protected wild. We also went to Plettenberg Bay, where my brother and I bungee jumped off of the Bloukran's Bridge.
After an exhilarating, yet rewarding five months, I can honestly say that I would do it over the exact same way if I had the chance. Being able to submerge myself into a country with culture and history as rich as South Africa has been a truly changing experience. It has been a trove of knowledge for my research in international affairs, as well as a once in a lifetime opportunity.