By Emily Goodell
Over half of U.S. students attend a study abroad program in a European country compared to less than five percent studying in African countries, according to the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers. I, along with other Whitworth students, belong to the latter demographic.
WHY I WENT TO AFRICA
I had the opportunity to spend this past January term studying journalism and political science in South Africa. We traveled the Garden Route from Cape Town to Johannesburg. We toured townships, visited museums and spent time at a game reserve. We stayed with seven host families over the course of the trip, each one different from the last. It was an incredibly enriching experience that irrevocably changed the way I view the world.
When I was applying for trips, I considered going to a European country, but ultimately chose to go to South Africa because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Although Europe has a rich, complex history, it is culturally similar to the US. It is westernized, Caucasian and English-speaking. It’s a fantastic place to vacation, and fairly accessible to do so. It’s not the best place to study abroad if you’re looking to be constantly exposed to ideas that contradict your own and cultures that are completely different from anything you have ever experienced.
Exploring other cultures opens up your world. It increases your intercultural communication skills and familiarizes the unfamiliar. We as humans have a tendency to interact primarily with people that are similar to us. That's not a bad thing, but it limits the scope of the perspectives that you are exposed to. In your life, you will encounter a variety of people and cultures, so knowing how to interact effectively with people that are different than you is a useful skill to utilize in your life.
WHY I WILL NEVER REGRET IT
The purpose of studying abroad is not just to see beautiful places and amazing things and extraordinary people. Studying abroad is about challenging yourself, testing your limits and going out of your comfort zone. You want to see a country’s beauty, but you also need to see the people’s pain.
I was fortunate to see both during my time in South Africa.
I saw beauty in the view of the expansive Table Mountain.
I saw pain in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island.
I saw beauty in the hospitality and graciousness of my host families as they welcomed me into their homes.
I saw pain in the indescribable inequality of ordinary people living extraordinary lives.
What I learned about myself and the world we live in by traveling to South Africa changed me for the better and forced me to open my eyes to what is going on around me and look out at the world beyond the United States.
As a country, we have a tendency to be narcissistic. The citizens of this country generally don't care very much what happens in other countries as long as it doesn't affect them. It's easy to lapse into an air of nonchalance when it comes to foreign affairs, especially when our country is large enough to be a world within itself.
We have a skewed perception of the identity of other countries in the world, other continents even. Take Africa, for example. When someone says, “Africa,” the first thing that comes to mind to people in the US is usually tribal peoples that live in the wild or lions walking through the streets. I was in “Africa” for almost a month and I shopped at H&M, ate McDonalds. At every gas station, I had a Coke and a bag of Lays potato chips. Africa is not what people think it is.
That's why it’s so important for American students to go to Africa. We need to keep educating ourselves about non-Americans and their culture. Every time someone says “Africa” and everyone else thinks of a wild place with nothing but poverty and disease, it kills the intellectual integrity of this country. When American students go to African countries, they learn what a small part of Africa is and what it has to offer the world.
WHY YOU SHOULD CONSIDER
Study abroad is an investment into your personal growth and your future. These are reasons why an African country is a great study abroad destination:
- Studying abroad in a non-traditional location gives you an advantage in job and graduate school applications. Diversifying your application and giving you some notoriety. Many students use their study abroad experiences as a representation of their abilities to interact with people. So if the country you study in is more diverse, the assumption is, right or not, that your intercultural communication skills are better than those people who traveled to European countries.
- Studying abroad gives you the unique opportunity to travel to places that are difficult to navigate on your own. If you want to go to Africa, study abroad is the place to do it. You can do Europe on your own or with a friend.
- Being exposed to contrasting cultures increases global awareness and cultural competency. If you want to go into any job that requires you to interact with people different from you, having knowledge about the world you live in and the people that live in it is absolutely necessary for successful communication.
- If you are part of the majority in the U.S., it allows you to experience the perspective of being a minority. The majority of South Africans are non-white, so going there as a white person was valuable to me. I was often put in an uncomfortable position when people stared and whispered about me for being the only white person in the room. While having that small experience for a month is nowhere comparable to living the life of a minority in the U.S., the experience allowed me to get a small inkling as to what it’s like. That increased my ability to empathize with others’ experiences.
Whether you decide to study abroad in Africa or not, you can take away from this that Africa is a richly diverse, interesting country with a lot of knowledge and experience to offer.
Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s hero, liberator, and inspiration said it best: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
So educate yourself because if you want to fight for something or make something of yourself, you need to be knowledgeable. Don't be the person that thinks Africa is a country.