Tips for Studying Abroad in South Africa

Q and A with Kathryn Mahters

Kathryn Mathers is a Visiting Scholar from Duke University's Department of Cultural Anthropology. She has completed research on American study abroad students in South Africa. Read an interview with Mathers about her research below.

Q: Much of your research focuses on how American study abroad students discover their "Americaness" while abroad in South Africa. Can you please explain what you mean with that and what it means to students preparing to go study abroad?

A: Although a lot will have changed for students traveling in 2011 compared to 2000, America is still a place where identity is understood in relation to other Americans and to diversity at home rather than between Americans and citizens of other countries. When we travel anywhere across national borders we encounter not just other people but their perceptions of us and of where we come from. For the American travelers I studied this meant being labeled as ‘just American’, that is not African American, Mexican American, Chinese American, Native American, Italian American, etc. It also often meant finding out that South Africans had a different perception of America and of its history and its politics than they did. While students from Northwestern might now have a much more sophisticated understanding of what it means to be American in the world, they will still meet people wherever they go that have their own ideas and their own perceptions and images of America and Americans. These might seem “wrong”; just plain incorrect but such perceptions are often based in real experiences and understanding of foreign relations or public policy, etc. as well as stemming from American representations of itself through a variety of media. Try to understand where such perceptions come from and why South Africans think the way they do or believe what they do, rather than “correct” them. This could lead to interesting conversations through which you will learn about America as well as South Africa.

Q: What advice would you give to help students prepare for their study abroad experience in general, but specifically for South Africa?

A: The more you know about where you are going, the more fun you can have learning things about this new place that are not in books or online. If you don’t have the basics, your encounters are so much about dealing with miscommunications that it’s difficult to go beyond that to really get to know people. So get a handle on the basic history and the fundamentals of the social and political structures, ie. most people understand how the American electoral college works but do you know how proportionate representation works in the South African parliamentary elections?

Read some newspapers, not just politics but sports and entertainment news. If you are interested in health care, find out how public health works in South Africa or if engineering, how engineers are trained etc. What are South Africans proud about in those fields, what are their critiques as opposed to the critiques of overseas observers?

Learn some basic greetings etc. in the local languages - Afrikaans and Xhosa – not because anybody expects you to hold a conversation but it shows respect and thoughtfulness to greet people in their own language.

Q: What advice would you give students to better adjust/accommodate to their new environment?

A: One of the hardest things about South Africa is, counter-intuitively, how familiar it will seem; the environment will mostly look a lot like American cities and towns and most people will speak and/or understand English. This will lead to a lot of confusion because South Africa is not America and South African English is a foreign language. The appearance of speaking the same language can be more discomfiting than when speaking different languages because the discovery that you don’t actually understand what is happening is more shocking and comes later. Remind yourself that you are not actually speaking the same language so that your confusion about content and the tone in a conversation will make more sense and you can ask questions rather than just feeling bewildered.

Try to see past the familiar roads, buildings, restaurants, television shows to find out what is South African about them. You are not there long enough to need the comfort of an American franchise so avoid escaping into a McDonalds and find ways to experience typical South African activities, foods, music etc. Go to a rugby match (a big deal in Stellenbosch) with a South African who can explain the rules, shop at a local grocery store, try waterblommetjie bredie (water lily stew, a local specialty), and, if in a group, walk or take public transport rather than taxis whenever possible. These are all just some small ways to help to get to know a new place rather than just visiting it.

Q: What questions should students ask themselves while they are abroad, as well as upon their return?

A: Time will fly while you are abroad so don’t do too much analysis while there, otherwise you risk missing out on actually experiencing a new place and getting to know new people. Do as much as possible and listen to the people you meet. If it feels overwhelming consider keeping a journal, not a blog or a homework assignment, but just a daily reflection and memory guide for when you come back. Along with your photos this will help you reflect on your experiences when home but also help to deal with lots of different and exciting experiences while you are there without requiring analysis or editorializing. Save this for when you get home and then ask yourself what surprised you, what you learnt about South Africa that you didn’t know before and that you couldn’t have learnt from a book or a class, what you learnt about America, about health care or democratic processes, how can you keep building on what you learnt as well as on the relationships you hopefully began whether personal or professional. Don’t let it stop when you get home; continue reading the online local newspaper as you can do this now with very different eyes.