Part One: How Study Abroad Changed Me


January 12, 2016

Getting to Know Cape Town & Its People

Natalie Marshall, a Senior at Arcadia University, writes about her experiences as a study abroad student in Cape Town, South Africa. In the first of two blog posts, she describes how learning about the country’s fascinating history and its people, through first-hand reflections from Arcadia faculty and others, has affected her personally and professionally.

As a South Africa study abroad mentor, I field a lot of questions about the country and what it is like to study abroad there. I often tell students that one of the best parts about studying in Cape Town is that it is almost impossible not to meaningfully interact with your host community. During my semester in Cape Town, I learned about the apartheid era, the institutionalization of racial discrimination, and the lasting effects of South Africa’s history from people who lived through some of the defining moments of the country’s past.

First-Hand Experiences of Apartheid

The core course taught by Resident Director Alan Jansen was one of the main reasons I was able to so easily interact with these people during my time abroad. With the core course, I went on tours of various historical and cultural sites like Robben Island, the District Six Museum, the township of Gugulethu, among many others. These tours were not simply led by informed individuals about the sites; they were led by people who had firsthand experience with them. For example, the Robben Island tour guide was a former prisoner on the island, convicted for supporting the anti-apartheid movement. He showed me the mat he slept on, where he showered, what he was allowed to eat, and the very cell in which Nelson Mandela lived. He showed me where he crushed and carried limestone to the quarry on the island every day as well as the exact spot where Nelson Mandela hid his Long Walk to Freedom manuscript. Hearing about the experiences of imprisonment from an anti-apartheid activist made Robben Island and the history of South Africa become real. It is one thing to read about the apartheid era in books, but it is another to walk through a prison with a former convicted political activist and hear about his experiences in the prison and in the apartheid era in general. This was an invaluable and impactful experience that will not be available forever.

Understanding Injustice & Forgiveness

The other core course excursions were just as poignant as our trip to Robben Island, as they allowed us to make even more connections with people who had incredible apartheid era stories to tell. At the District Six Museum, a site dedicated to the residential area that was bulldozed by the apartheid regime, I was able to speak to a man who was forcibly removed from his childhood home, which was eventually bulldozed. This former District Six resident has hopes of returning to the area to live in a new house one day. He said that as he gets older, he realizes that he might never get to move back to District Six, but all he can do is hope. He spoke to me about this sense of hope, forgiveness, and how harboring resentment solves no problems in post-apartheid South Africa. This outlook was incredible for a man whose own home was destroyed simply because of his race. Hearing his experiences firsthand allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the injustice, oppression, and atrocities that many people faced under the apartheid regime, but it also allowed me to see the true impact of the power of forgiveness – a message that Nelson Mandela is known for spreading across South Africa.

Learning About Township Life

Our excursion to the township of Gugulethu was an equally eye-opening experience, as I was able to see how many South Africans are still affected by the apartheid era today, but I was also able to dispel some of my own misunderstandings about township life. Before I visited South Africa, in my mind, a township was a place where people lived in small shacks, experienced extreme poverty, and lived lives of hardship. While there are people in Gugulethu who do live in shacks made of corrugated iron and turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their squalid living conditions, that is not the case for all of Gugulethu. A resident of the township showed us around so we could see that many residents of the township live in beautiful homes, go to school and church, and enjoy themselves on weekends at restaurants like Mzoli’s. I was able to eat lunch at Mzoli’s, which is a butchery and restaurant where Gugulethu residents gather, eat braai meat, and listen to great music. It was, in fact, one of the liveliest spots I visited in South Africa. This is not to say that there is not a great deal of inequality in South Africa that becomes apparent in the townships, but my experience in Gugulethu and Mzoli’s proved to me that not all of township life is bleak and desolate. Seeing this aspect of township life is not something that many visitors to Cape Town are able to do, but thanks to the core course, I gained a great deal of insight into the real historical and contemporary state of the country through interactions with various Gugulethu residents.

New Perspectives on Life and Career

The main thing I gained from all these experiences in South Africa is a heightened awareness of the reality of history. It sounds silly, but before I studied in South Africa, the country’s history and events were nothing more than dates and names to me. When I heard the stories of real people’s experiences under the apartheid regime, South Africa’s past and present began to mean so much more to me. It used to be so easy to distance myself from issues that are happening across the globe that have no direct impact on me, but after my time in South Africa, I learned to think about these issues in terms of how they are affecting real people. This shift in thinking has rejuvenated my passion for what I study, and it has also made me very interested in international education. I am currently an Education Department intern at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, where I aim to create global citizens and spark students’ interest in world affairs so that they do not distance themselves from real events happening across the globe, like I did before studying in South Africa. I would not be so enthusiastic about my current career trajectory had I not heard the impactful apartheid-era stories of so many South Africans through the excursions with the core course.