UCT Academics

One of the biggest culture shocks I’ve had so far would have to be school at UCT. Even starting out at orientation and registration it was much different. In the US most schools have an online registration process near the end of the previous semester in order to sign up for classes and figure out your schedule. At UCT, however, the registration process involves various steps and needs to be completed in person after waiting in multiple lines. So, coming into the semester I didn’t know what classes I would end up taking. After standing in line to talk to an academic advisor and present what classes I was interested in taking, I was able to register for two courses and had to wait to seek approval from a faculty member for my third course. Then on the first day of class, I had to find the course convener for the psychology course I wanted to add, have her sign the course addition document, go stand in a line for 45 minutes to have an academic advisor approve the course, and finally go stand in another line to have someone manually input the course into my schedule. Although registration at Hope can be stressful, this experience made me very appreciative of registration at Hope and how quick and easy it is.

Now, after the first week of classes, I have a set schedule including three courses at UCT and one through the IES program. At first when deciding to go abroad, I figured I would be able to have a schedule that would allow me to have class fewer days each week and longer weekends, but little did I know that classes at UCT can meet up to 4 days a week and include an additional tutorial session. My Cognitive Neuroscience and Abnormal Psychology course has four 45-minute lectures and one 45-minute tutorial every week. The lectures are taught by the professor and have about 500 students, whereas the tutorials are taught by an assistant professor or post-graduate student and only include about 20 students. Being in a lecture this large will definitely take some getting used to since the largest class I’ve been a part of before at Hope was only 60 students. Having the tutorials is really helpful though because we are able to go over lecture material in a smaller group, making it easier to ask questions and get to know class mates.

My 500 student psychology lecture

The way professors and assistant professors grade in South Africa is something I will have to get used to as well. In the US, we are used to having points taken off for getting an answer wrong or not writing enough detail about something in a paper, for example. Here, however, points are awarded for doing something right or doing what the professor expects. Because of that, it is much harder to get a 100% on something here. Anything between a 75% and 100% here is equivalent to an A, and A’s are hard to come by at UCT. So, I will have to adjust my brain to not freak out if I get a 68% on a quiz or test because that would be a B+, not a D.

The size of UCT has also been an adjustment for me, as it has about 30,000 undergraduate students and much larger campus than I am used to. UCT campus is on the side of Table Mountain, which means it is uphill and has three different levels: lower, middle, and upper campus. To walk from my house on lower campus to upper campus can take about 20 minutes, and it’s not always a leisurely walk. They also have a Jammie shuttle that takes students from lower campus up, but you have to get to the stop pretty early in order to ensure you’ll get a spot on the bus. So, I usually just opt for making the walk up to class.

The view on my walk to school
The view on my walk back home
Part of Middle Campus on my walk back home

Even though there have been a lot of challenges in adjusting to this new learning environment, I am very excited for this semester and the courses I am taking. Three out of the four courses I am taking are focused on African culture or society. Probably the course I am most looking forward to is African Instrument, where I will be learning different African drumming styles and techniques along with other traditional African instruments! I am also taking an African Religious Traditions course which focuses on Indigenous religions, African Islam, and African Christianity. It will be interesting to see the similarities and differences between religion in Africa and in the US throughout this course. The third African focused class I am taking is through the IES program and is called Community Health in Context. This course focuses on the health care system in South Africa and how it has progressed and affected the community. This course also involves a service learning component, where I will complete 40 hours of service at a volunteer site and complete 20 hours of research throughout the semester related to my volunteer site and the health care system in South Africa. I will be volunteering with a UCT organization called SHAWCO Health where I will assist UCT Medical Students at mobile clinics that travel to townships around Cape Town. I am very excited and eager to be a part of this organization and not only experience medical care in South Africa but to meet individuals from various townships as well and be able to learn from them.

Academically, I think this semester will be challenging and something I have to adjust to, but I am looking forward to learning about South Africa in the class room!

The Garden Route

Last weekend was full of crossing things off the South Africa bucket list! IES organized a road trip for us along the Garden Route, a stretch of southern South Africa that is made up of farmland and some incredible sights. We had an early morning Friday to drive to our first destination, Wilderness. Wilderness is home to the Touw River, where we got to canoe and look at the mountains and hills surrounding the water. It was a bit chilly to be canoeing, but still a fun way to experience Wilderness and do some sight-seeing.

The IES group on the beach of the Touw River after canoeing!

On Saturday we made our way to Tsitsikamma National Park and hiked to the suspension bridge that overlooks the Indian Ocean. Despite the pouring rains, this hike was amazing. The views were spectacular and full of beautiful plant life and animals. Once we made it to the suspension bridge we were able to walk across and see down the river between the mountains on one side and out into the ocean on the other. It stopped raining right after we crossed the bridge, so we were able to walk back to the beach rain free which was a nice break, even though we were all already drenched.

Sarah, another Hope student, and me on the suspension bridge at Tsitsikamma National Park.
View of the mountains from the suspension bridge.
View of the suspension bridge and the outlook of the Indian Ocean.

After we dried off a bit we had the choice of going to four different animal encounters: monkeys, birds, big cats, or elephants. The majority of people chose the same as me and went to the elephant reservation where they save elephants from zoos and trafficking to put them in a natural and safe environment. We were able to get up close with the elephants and meet them which was one of the most exciting parts of this trip! We got to walk with the elephants while holding their trunks, pet them, feel their ears and tails, and hug their trunks. I also got to feed them chunks of cantaloupe and they grabbed it right out of my hand with their trunks and tried to take it from my hand even if they weren’t the elephant I was trying to feed. It was a really fun way to encounter elephants and learn more about them!

Walking with an elephant!
Learning about the elephants from our guide, Charlie.
Giving the elephant a hug!

Sunday, our last day of the Garden Route trip, we headed to Congo. In Congo we went to the famous caves that were discovered by a Dutch farmer who was looking for a lost sheep. We did the adventure tour, which meant that we had to crawl through tight spaces to get to some of the caverns. The rocks and formations inside the caves were really cool and took hundreds of thousands of years to form. Even though some of the crevices we had to fit through were tight and a little nerve-racking, it was definitely worth it to see what the caves had to offer.

Our final stop on the trip was to an African ostrich farm. Ostriches in South Africa are farmed for their meat and leather and are also used to herd and protect sheep. There was a handful of ostriches that they let us interact with. The first ostrich we saw was a dwarf ostrich who had a mutation causing him to be significantly shorter than the typical ostrich. We were able to feed him pellets out of our hands, and he had a surprisingly powerful bite and sharp beak. We then met Betsy, a full grown ostrich that the farm rescued. The tour guide said that Betsy is an unusually friendly ostrich, whereas typical ostriches are very aggressive and protective. Since Betsy is friendly and enjoys being around people, everyone got a chance to pet her and get an ostrich hug! The tour guide then asked us if we wanted to get an ostrich neck massage. We figured this meant standing with your back to a bunch of ostriches while holding a bucket of food. The ostriches reached over my head and around my neck in order to eat from the bucket. They were going at the food pretty hard and I definitely got hit in the face by an ostrich head a couple times, but it was worth it.

The dwarf ostrich – significantly shorter than the average ostrich.
Getting a hug from Betsy!
Getting a neck massage from the other ostriches by feeding them!

It was a really fun trip and a neat way to see more of South Africa other than Cape Town, but I am definitely excited to be back in Cape Town and become more familiar with the city I will be living in for the next four months!

The Mother City

I arrived safely in Cape Town a week ago for my fall semester at University of Cape Town and began what I hope will be the adventure of a lifetime! When I landed, I met my study abroad program director at the airport to drive to where I’ll be staying for the semester: a small 7-person house in a little enclosed garden. The house seems like it will make for good community throughout the semester, but I just have to get used to using a space heater to warm up my room since its winter here and uncommon to have central heating. The winters in Cape Town get cool, around 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit and are very rainy, but the rain is much needed here because of the drought Cape Town is going through. The water reserves were recently reaching 14% of their capacity, but since the winter rains it is now above 50%, which will last the area until 2019 at least. Even though the water levels have risen, Cape Town is still considered to be in a drought. We are under water restrictions and have to try our best to limit our water usage. That means short showers, recycling shower water to flush toilets, not leaving the faucets running while washing dishes or brushing teeth, etc. It will definitely take some getting used to!

Upper Campus at University of Cape Town, where I will be studying!

My first week here consisted of full days of IES orientation, where IES staff members went over Cape Town culture, history, safety, and academics. The orientation was mostly made up of lectures, but we were able to do some fun things afterwards. On Wednesday a few people from a nearby township called Langa came to take us on a tour in order for us to experience Cape Town as a whole instead of just becoming familiar with the city. Townships are similar to neighborhoods surrounding the city and each one is unique, so the members of the communities have a lot of pride in their township. Langa is a Xhosa township, which is one of cultural groups and one of the 11 national languages of South Africa. Langa is made up of black lower and middle class South Africans. During orientation we learned that in South Africa 54% of the population is under the poverty line and only 13 percent of the total population make enough money to be eligible tax payers. These were significant and surprising statistics to learn. We were able to see some poverty  first hand in Langa since the majority of the people are also under the poverty line.

Mike, our tour guide, was born and raised in Langa and still lives there today. Because it is a such a strong community in this township, he said that few people tend to leave even if they have enough money to move to a wealthier township. It was also evident that there was strong community based on the amount of people that were outside together and the number of children playing in the streets with each other. Our first stop on the tour was the arts building, where there are a few different art programs. One of the programs is called Our City – Cape Town. This program is made up of various local artists who sell their work and put the profits towards funding for local youth to come after school and learn how to make artwork. It is a way for the young people in the township to learn a new skill and have something to do after classes. It seemed like a really good opportunity for the children because from what we saw in the township, they  didn’t have toys to play with or access to the types of crafts or activities I grew up with. They were smiling and laughing and having fun but were playing with car tires and old storage crates. It was reassuring seeing how their community was providing them with opportunities like this art program since they are unable to have their own toys and other things many of us take for granted.

Some of the artwork created by local Langa artists being sold for the Our City – Cape Town program.
A mosaic wall outside of the Langa art building.

The next stop was with street vendors cooking and selling sheep heads. In Langa sheep are a common and popular food, but they eat every part of the sheep, including the organs and the head. So, we were able to see how Langa women cook the sheep head and even got to try a bite! The idea of eating the face of a sheep was a lot worse than the taste. It wasn’t bad but that could’ve been because I put a lot of salt on it. It is also tradition for boys to go through a rite of passage to transition to manhood, in which a sheep is sacrificed. So sheep are a big part of the cuisine and religious tradition.

A street vendor cooking a sheep head over the fire.
The sheep head I got to taste a bite of!

In Langa there is also a variety of living situations based on socioeconomic status. The middle class members live in full houses collected in one section of the township. The lower class community members live in hostels. Mike brought us to see a couple different hostels on our tour. There are older hostels where up to 6 people live in a room about 12’ x 10’ and they share a common space and bathrooms with 5 other rooms. This means that at times there can be 36 people sharing the same kitchen and bathroom. These living conditions were hard to see and experience because they wouldn’t be ideal for anyone. The room we went into was where a 16-year-old girl lived with her family; it was hard to imagine what it would be like to have to do all of my homework and apply for college in a tiny room filled with my family. It put into perspective what living conditions I grew up with and am used to compared to and how I complain about my dorm room being small when I only share it with one person, not five others. The government knows that these living conditions need to be improved, so they have started renovating the hostels. The newer ones are much nicer. They still have one bedroom with up to 6 people, but there is only one room sharing a common area, which is much more homey and comfortable. It was nice seeing that improvements are being made, but it is not happening at the rate that it needs to be.

Rows of older hostels in Langa.

After seeing the township and experiencing a little bit of their daily life, we went to a restaurant in the township, Mzamzi, and got to taste traditional Xhosa food and listen to an African band during dinner. The woman who runs the restaurant and cooked our meal came out to Welcome us to Langa and told us the story about how the restaurant came to be. She told us that she wanted people to be able to experience a different part of Cape Town and see that townships are not all dangerous but have a rich culture in themselves. Her restaurant is ranked number one in Cape Town on Trip Advisor which is an incredible accomplishment for her and her community. The food was delicious and included traditional foods such as samp and beans, beef stew, umngqusho (dried maize and bean mélange) and my favorite part, malva pudding for dessert. After eating, her husband came out and got us dancing to the African band and we even got to play the instruments for the last song. It was a very fun way to end the night, seeing how excited the people of this community were to share their culture with us!

The African band playing at Mzamzi while we were eating. We got a chance to play some of the instruments pictured!

Experiencing Langa was eye-opening, allowing me to gain a better understanding of what life is like for many South Africans. Some of my peers at UCT will have come from townships such as this, and I hope I will be able to learn more about life in townships through talking with peers and experiencing more of them throughout my time here. There is so much culture here in Cape Town and so much depth to each aspect of it, I can’t wait to discover more!

It’s Not Goodbye, It’s See You Later

It has been four days since I returned home from the Mother City.  It has been a pleasure to reflect on my time abroad while embracing the reverse culture shock of home.

Thank You Cape Town:

for your beauty

for your diverse cultures

for your exotic flavors

for your mountains overlooking the ocean

for your music

for your enthusiasm of sports

for your kind spirit


It’s been a great five months 🙂

To all those in Cape Town I say, ‘See you later’ and thank you for the wonderful journey. Cheers!

To all at home thank you for allowing me to have this amazing opportunity and which has allowed my confidence to grow.

Destination: Desert

Unlike finals week at Hope, finals at the University of Cape Town span over a three-week time frame.  I somehow ended up with a 10 day gap in between exams and decided to make the most of it 🙂

We traveled North to the recently declared country of Namibia; a past colony of Germany and area of apartheid South Africa after World War I.  We flew to the Walvis Bay and Swakopmund area to visit attractions in the Namib Desert, the oldest desert in the world home to the highest sand dunes on the globe.



We took a tour of Sandwich Harbor, where the dunes met the ocean.  The towering dunes put the northern Michigan Sleeping Bear Dunes to shame.  Our guide explained how the beautiful shell we had found in the ocean was a 1.5 million year old fossil and was only found in the 10 mile stretch of beach we would be traveling.  On our way to our final destination we saw jackals, springbok, and flamingos!



We climbed up these towering dunes and ran down.  After lunch we went in the jeep over the dunes back to our accommodation!  It felt like being on a roller coaster.  The sand rumbled when we slid down; it was exhilarating 🙂


We took the challenge of climbing up the tallest dune, Dune 7, in the world.  It was super steep and at times I had to crawl upward.  It was worth the trip up since the sunset was stunning over the dunes and the water.



We took a day trip to the largest German town outside of Germany, to Swakopmund.  We found a dune boarding tour, which was super fun.  Our weather was a winter anomaly since East Desert winds from the Kalahari created sandstorm conditions.  The wind was so powerful on the dunes that you couldn’t open your eyes and any exposed skin was stung with the whipping of sand.  It was crazy at the top but the ride down was fantastic!



After our adventures on the coast we joined a camping tour to the Sossusvlei region, known for the towering red dunes and flat salt pans.

We walked down into the beautiful Sesriem Canyon, a rock formation shaped from a dried up river.  We saw water at the start of the canyon and were informed that the fish that lived in the river during the wet season journeyed under ground and could survive for years without ever coming above ground.



Just near our campsite we hiked up Dune 1 to view the sunset and a stunning moon rise.  The red sand contrasted beautifully against the shades of blue and pink in the sky.

It was fun to watch the stars and enjoy the camp fire.  In the morning we woke up around 5:30 to hike up Dune 45 to view the sunrise.  The neon shades were unbelievable.


After breakfast we journeyed to the Dead Vlei region and hiked up Big Daddy Dune to get an aerial view.  It was quite taxing, but we took it steady and slow, being sure to take multiple ‘scenic breaks’.


The top of the dune proved to be a beautiful view of the salt pans and stretching dessert landscape.

We made our way down the dune and across the salt pan.  My desert adventure amazed me; it showed me how diverse the countryside of southern Africa really is.  This trip was one of my favorite due to its unique qualities.  I enjoyed visiting a lesser known destination; I wish to seek these off-the-grid locations for the future 🙂

Leaving the Island

Cape Town is often considered the ‘gateway to Africa’.  Even with diverse backgrounds and beliefs, a common ideology when viewing the rest of the nation and the surrounding countries is present.   While Cape Townians pride themselves on uncovering truths and opening up deep conversations, the lack of the ‘rural-minded’ individual has instituted a specific story about various issues in Africa.

A local, outside of the Western Cape region, explained how Cape Town was an island and much of South African thoughts and desires failed to find their way to the city.  He proceeded to explain how most areas of the nation held their own distinct views of the nation and how the country fits into the world.

I had the chance to expand my horizons through a weekend girls’ trip to the East side of the country.  We were immersed in a vastly differing environment that confirmed and challenged much of the conceptions of the area that I had developed in Cape Town.


We made our home base for traveling at the backpackers of Durban.  It was quite a different feel than Cape Town where if you acted confident and threw in lekker local jargon you could swing by for being a South African.  However, in Durban no matter how hard you tried you would always be a tourist since a greater demographic change was observed due to the large Zulu and Indian populations.

We explored the Golden mile: strips of beautiful coast that gave the city a Miami-like feel.  We saw large groups of locals dancing in the water-side with buckets.  It was later revealed that salt water is a known cure to get rid of negative spirits among the Zulu people.  While traditional medicine and coinciding practice is integral to life in Cape Town, often the traditions are not recognizable.  It was fascinating to finally view the traditions in a more open and clear manner.

We continued to explore the Durban city and saw the locals celebrate in anticipation of the football match being held at the past World Cup Stadium.  I love football culture; fans were driving around holding their team flags out of the window and cheering with vuvuzelas.  We continued onto the bustling Victoria Street Market.  It was quite exciting to experience the loud and fast-paced culture of bargaining and trade.

In the evening we journeyed to the House of Curry to indulge in the famous Indian Cuisine of Eastern South Africa.  I enjoyed trying the distinctly South African dish of bunnychow; curry placed inside a loaf of bread.

The following morning we traveled to the oldest Botanical Garden in South Africa and ate breakfast with prowling monkeys.  Luckily this time we managed to eat all our lunch without them taking a bite.





About forty five minutes from Durban, in the city of Pietermaritzburg we were immersed in the history of the revered figure of Ghandi.  It was at a train station that Ghandi first was woke to the ideas of racial prejudice and injustice.  He was thrown off of the train for residing in a ‘Europeans Only’ car while dressed in professional suit attire.

Prior to entering the nation, Ghandi held truths regarding Black Africans similar to the colonizer.  Entering, he realized that this conception of African people was not correct.  He fought on behalf of Indians and all who were being oppressed by the power holders in South Africa’s society.


Phoenix Settlement:

We managed to travel into the Phoenix Settlement township in the outskirts of the city to view the preserved grounds of Ghandi’s house and newspaper center when he was in the KwaZulu-Natal region.  It was amazing to see the beginning of his efforts to fight injustice in a peaceful manner.



Waking up early in the morning, we drove to the kingdom of Lesotho; a country completely landlocked in the nation of South Africa and untouched by the likes of apartheid.  On the country roads it was fun to see the ‘Rural Stop-Lights’; sheep and cow herders.  It was also incredible to view the mountainous peaks covered in snow in the distance.  I had traveled three hours and went from swimming in the tropical waters to viewing snow.

We hired a driver to take us up the Sani pass; winding roads that could only be trekked with a 4 by 4. Slowly the flowing waterfalls transformed into frozen pools.

We entered the kingdom of Lesotho and viewed the village surrounding the highest pub in Africa located at the top of the Sani Pass.  It was sad to hear that the area was dying out since the youth were traveling to the city and not returning.

After lunch we made our journey back down the road, awed by the gorgeous views and treacherous winding gravel terrain.  I was glad to explore ‘two islands’ during the weekend to broaden my perception of southern Africa.

The Cape of Storms; the Ultimate Summertime Paradise

Long before the Dutch and English colonized South Africa, the Portuguese sailor Bartolomeu Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope as a harbor of refuge from the treacherous storms along the coast of southern Africa.

Seeking a passage for trade to India,  Dias mistakenly found the lush and beautiful peninsula while mother nature tested the limits of the 15th century ship.  Because of this traumatizing experience, he named the peninsula  the “cape of storms”.

While the winter months in the Cape of Good Hope are comparable to the experience of Dias, the summer and fall months offer the traveler a much nicer experience.


My IES program sponsored a tour of the Cape which started in the man-made harbor of Hout Bay.  We caught a boat to explore the nearby Seal Island to watch the “dogs of the sea” waddle along the rocks.

The southern portion of Africa is infamous for its Great White Shark population.  Luckily, I was assured that we would not see a shark breech as it tried to capture breakfast;  the seals were safe since the island was in a position too close to shore and it was surrounded by underwater rocks.

We continued driving along the peninsula and stopped at Chapman’s peak to look back at the gorgeous view of the bay.  The winding roads along Chapman’s drive were exhilarating; on one side were chains supporting the mountain so that an avalanche wouldn’t occur and on the other was a cliff that went straight into the ocean.


In Simon’s Town at Boulders Beach we saw a colony of penguins; they had migrated from Antarctica in an island hopping process to populate various regions in South Africa and Namibia.  Watching them waddle along the beach and enter the wavy water was surreal.


The last stop was at Cape Point, the most south-eastern part of the African continent; not the most southern point contrary to belief.  Prior to taking a steep but amazing hike to the lighthouse we came across angry baboons.  They barred our entrance to the local museum’s restroom and made quite a spectacle stealing food from tourists trying to enjoy a picnic.

This occurrence added to the excitement and I can say this trip is one of my favorite days in South Africa so far.  It is not a surprise as to why the peninsula is named the Cape of Good Hope.  Cheers!

A Land of Extreme Beauty; Garden Route Road Trip


Pictured above from my adventure on the  Garden Route tour and a hike up Table Mountain is an African elephant and a dassie.  It isn’t hard to tell the two animals apart; on the surface their appearances are as different as night and day.  However, if you were to delve deeper and compare their genetic make-up, you would find that the dassie, a rather large rodent-like creature, is the closest relation to the mighty elephant.  This contrast in appearance but underlying connection parallels greatly into South Africa as a nation.

I was surprised to find that my first adventure in South Africa, a road trip on the world renown Garden Route, started the same as many camping trips back home; with me in a state of mind resembling both panic and extreme excitement.  My trip began before the sun came out, frantically packing and rushing out to the bus (hence the panic) as I anticipated the lifelong memories to come (hence the excitement).


On the road to Wilderness I realized that the South African landscape was as different as the dassie and the elephant;containing rigid hills, towering mountains, rolling dessert plains, and jaw-dropping beaches.    At some moments I felt like I was driving through the rugged rock formations of Utah when ten minutes later  I was  transported into the lush green of Scotland’s Highlands.  Not once throughout the five hour drive was  my view without a mountain range!


Once in Wilderness we set sail and saw the landscape via kayak.  When we made our way to the beachfront hotel I watched other tourists attempt to para-glide on the steep cliffs above the Indian Ocean.  As I made my first steps into the Indian Ocean I realized how much warmer the waters were compared to the icy waters from Antarctica in Cape Town.


The second day we set off for Tsitsikamma National Park in the Eastern Cape to explore a “easy” hike on the Otter trail.  We were all surprised to find that easy meant climbing the rocky shore and peddling up intense stairways.  The challenge was good practice for climbing local Cape Town mountain peaks and the journey was beautiful;  we made it to our destination safe and swam in the refreshing waters of the seaside waterfall.


The view from winding  roads in the mountains surrounding  Oudtschoorn was extremely beautiful as we bunked in for a night to prepare for our third day of adventure.  In the morning we explored the Cango Caves and shimmied our way through spaces  that were only passably with one person at a time.  Studying abroad will leave you in situations were you are in a tight spot!

We made our way back to the “mothercity” feeling like we had seen a lifetime worth of beauty.  But as the saying goes “TIA” this is Africa; a place where you can see elephants, ostriches, dolphins, caves, and mountains in just three days.

This Time for Africa

Life of a Biochemical Engineering Major involves late night study sessions, long lab reports, and an endless swamp of assignments.  I love the challenge every semester brings but this time I will be embarking on a different kind of academic adventure; one that’s even more life-changing.

I’m trading in my thick text books for biographies of Nelson Mandela and Trevor Noah; my parka coat to protect against the icy Michigan tundra with short’s and T-shirts; my comfortable college environment with a university ten times as large.  This will be a new kind of learning and I plan to make the most of it.

About two weeks ago I arrived in the “motherland” the glorious Cape Town, South Africa to attend classes at the local college, the University of Cape Town.  Rather than meandering through  Hope’s  grove to the science center, I had to trek up the stunning mountain (Devil’s Peak) for my first day of class.

Already two days into the semester, I have come to discover three major takeaways as a visitor to this new land.  First that this diverse nation is home to 11 national languages.  It was quite fascinating to hear Afrikaans and Xhosa at a local grocery store; Xhosa being a language that employs multiple clicking noises and Afrikaans an evolution of the Dutch language arising from Dutch settler’s migration in the seventeenth century.  Although I heard an array of communication methods I was still able to use English when getting my groceries.  It’s amazing to think that almost every person in the country can speak at least two languages when sometimes I can have trouble with one (specifically grammar and various geographic colloquiums).

I also recognized that society has been largely impacted by the implementation of apartheid (which ended only 23 years ago);  that was the legal segregation of the black, colored, and white populations.  Immediately after stepping off the long twenty hour plane ride I was greeted into Cape Town with an inside look to the less westernized settlements of South Africa; the townships.  During apartheid people of colored or black race were forcefully removed to these township outskirts.  With a 35% unemployment rate many families have chosen to remain in these areas due to not being able to afford to leave their pre-liberation homes.


But even with blatant poverty as a staple in Cape Town society, somehow the city maintains a majestic energy,  I realized that this atmosphere  stems from the beauty of the land, citizens hope for the future, and the wide embrace of many cultures.    I feel like I have already learned so much and I can’t wait to see what the future will bring; for this time my semester is “for (South) Africa”.



Reflecting on my time in South Africa: A Changed Person – A Changed Perspective


Almost five months.  I lived in South Africa for almost 5 months. I could hardly imagine so much fun and pain, so many learned lessons  and new perspectives, so many breathtaking and tragic sights all could be crammed into a mere 150 days. Yet I experienced all that and more. The John Luke that stepped onto the South Africa soil on the 2nd of July is drastically different from the John Luke that stepped into O’Hare International Airport on the 23rd of November.

As my time in South Africa has come to a close, I have taken some time to reflect on what lessons impacted me in the now and will continue to impact me for the rest of my life.

My change in South Africa can best be described as becoming woke

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Woke is a millennial term that urban dictionary defines as the state of “being aware” or “knowing what’s going on in the community.” This typically describes people “waking up” to issues of race or social justice. In South Africa, my woke  process began as I came to understand society in a whole new light, see injustice in the day to day, and understand my place in it all.

University of Cape Town offered one of the most transformative classes I have ever taken: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. In this sociology class, I learned that society is set up in a way which gives a person who fits into a certain mold the most power while those that do no fit the mold are left in the margins. When there is power, there is often oppression, and those that feel that pang of oppression are those that are in the margins. A lot of that is just words, so who holds the most power? Who fits in the mold in which society’s structures give the most power? In reference to race, class, gender, and sexuality the mold typically holds the white, middle to upper class, heterosexual, masculine male. And everyone outside of that – Blacks, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, low class citizens, women, Non-binary persons, disabled, queer individuals – are all people who will feel that pang of oppression.

These are all concepts that I had maybe seen before or heard others talk about, but I never before really had to think about them. My rural Indiana childhood home didn’t make me think about it. My friendly and welcoming West Michigan environment and college didn’t make me think about it.  My whole world, which I realized was predominately white, middle class, and heterosexual, didn’t make me think about it because truthfully, it didn’t affect me as a white male.


Yet that unawareness was not possible while being in South Africa. The moment I arrived, I was surrounded by oppression as I saw the difference of extreme wealth and extreme poverty within a 10 mile radius (as seen in my first blog in SA). This wasn’t just poverty linked to class as I had seen many times in US cities, but a poverty that was so strongly tied to race. Due to South Africa’s history with apartheid and colonization, race and its association to poverty and oppression was very prevalent in my day to day interactions – from who held what positions to the opportunities of my fellow classmates to the beggars on the streets.  Apartheid had only been lifted about 20 years ago, so being in South Africa was like being in an environment that was the United States 20 years after the Jim Crow laws were abolished. Even though 79.2% of South Africa is made up of black Africans, while the rest are white, Indian, and other, the 8.9% of white South Africans hold the most power (2011 SA Census). As white supremacy and privilege screamed at me every day in all my interactions and conversations, it made me think about the world I lived in.


I had to ask myself “who am I and what does my privilege mean?” I started to understand that due to my race, due to my class, due to my biological sex, due to my sexuality, due to my nationality of an American – I held extreme privilege in society. I reflected how I saw myself potentially abusing my privileged place of power and how even the simple little actions I did could be oppressive . For example, South Africa has this amazing place located in Woodstock called the Old Biscuit Mill which is essentially a farmer’s market on Saturdays that has the BEST food. Much talk and excitement had been built up about going to this must-do location while in Cape Town, yet the first thing noticed when I woke up one Saturday morning to check this adventure off of my list was how white (in terms of race) the Old Biscuit Mill was. And in understanding the location more, I realized, that though the Old Biscuit Mill was a nice family friendly Saturday morning outing, it was the work of gentrification, or the upscaling of a specific area that then causes the cost of living to increase in that area and pushes the poor residents, usually those of color, out of the neighborhood. The recently gentrified Woodstock essentially had a financial apartheid and again the white privileged people were the ones that benefited from it. When I was providing my business at this market, I felt like I was just feeding into the oppression and injustice. This simple thing that seemed so fun and like a must-do since I was in Cape Town was in reality, oppressive.

Through my awakening process, I also began to see how privilege is so wrapped up in the society that we are born into – both in terms of South Africa and the United States. I saw how things with good intentions behind it could be oppressive: domestics jobs, chivalry, or even Disney. Even though domestic work can provide income to someone of a lower class who needs the money, often the positions are filled with a person of color, and thus the job still feeds into the white supremacy system as lower class people of color are serving upper class whites. Though a man chivalrously opening a door for a woman is a nice gesture, it feeds into the age old concept that a women is too “weak” to do it herself, and must have a knight in shining armor open the door for her. Even if the intentions are just to be polite, due to the historical context, oppression is wrapped in it. Even with Disney, something that brings joy across the world, it wasn’t until 2009 that a black princess was represented. It wasn’t until 7 years ago that a black child even had the option of connecting with a princess that looked like them!

While my new understanding of society should have been liberating, it came with a heavy weight. A denseness labeled as white guilt, feeling upset about the societal oppression of the world and feeling guilty because, simply being born a white male, I held the most power in the system. This guilt also stemmed from times where I realized where I had been oppressive or still was. This is not an example I love to share, but about a month into my time in South Africa, I was getting off of the train and a black woman asked me a question. At that time, I was on high defense (because the train wasn’t the safest), and I found myself assuming that this person was another beggar and wanted money. So when she asked the question, I responded how I often had responded to beggars: In a sympathetic voice, “Sorry. I don’t have anything.” I didn’t even realize until later that this black woman just wanted to know how to get to the other side of the tracks. I was being oppressive in terms of class and race in this situation – not even giving my time to listen. I instantly felt terrible for what I had done, but it also made me realize my societal privilege that I still had to work on breaking down. For the first time ever, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin because of the meaning behind it, the meaning of “whiteness.” In my discomfort, I had to decide what to do  with this guilt – to either sit in it and be despaired  or have a change within myself and try to make a difference somehow.

IMG_5847.JPGAs I was sitting in this guilt, in a discussion with a black female friend, I asked her “What can I do?” And to that she said that I must continue to understand and break down my own privilege as well as be a voice in a place that she might not be listened too – in a place where she might just be seen as another stereotyped, angry, black woman. So that is what I am trying to do: to break down my own privilege and understand and learn the way society functions and the oppression and power within it. More than just learn, but to be willing to share what I have learned even if it may not always “keep the peace.” But to share, I must do so in a way that doesn’t just feed into more oppression as can be seen in with the White Savior Industrial Complex. So, that is why I am willing to not go to class during a time of protests because I think it’s an unjust action (full story here in my protest blog). That’s why more of my Facebook shares aren’t just funny dancing videos anymore but also movements like replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Day.  That’s why I am more liberal, radical, and progressive. That’s why I am even writing this blog.

I am a changed person with a changed perspective. Why? Because of this awakening process. I could claim that I am woke, but even that is an abuse of my privilege because I still have so much more to learn and understand about the world around me, as I believe everyone does. I have changed. Never before did I have to even think that I was white and now the understanding img_7827of that is constantly on my mind. And it goes beyond just my race, but class, gender, sexuality, abilities, and more. A very wise person once said to me, “The greatest privilege is to be unaware of your privilege; to choose to be ignorant.” I was definitely that. So I ask you, “What is your privilege in society and what does that mean to you?” And with that understanding, “What needs to change?”

The greatest privilege is to be unaware of your privilege. It is up to you to make that change – to become a changed person, and thus a changed perspective.