Maggie Connolly ’21
Every time I open my computer, I see a photo of O’Kane Hall I took on a walk to Kimball. It was a spring Wednesday evening last semester, and I was meeting my cousin for dinner. She was on the apartment meal plan and wanted a guest swipe for some stir fry. It is my favorite time of day at school. The dinner rush is just starting, students are walking in and out of their evening practicum classes. It is spring, so the sun still shines with a comfortable warmth at six o’clock.
Now, where I live, the sun sets at five thirty, six at the latest. It is winter, turning to spring, but I am wearing shorts instead of my parka and slush-proof boots. I look out the window of my classroom, and I see the Indian Ocean beyond concrete skyscraper hotels.
As a freshman, I know I am going to go abroad, but it is simply a tiny speck on the horizon of my new and exciting college experience. As a sophomore, I go to the study abroad convention in Hogan Ballroom. As a junior, I board a South African Airways flight. It is fourteen hours, direct from JFK to OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg.
I have been here just over a month and studying abroad is already challenging my mind in the most unusual ways. It is challenging my perception of what “school” really is. Every day I go to a tiny classroom on the fourth floor of an office tower in downtown Durban. On our first official day of classes, I get dropped off in a part of the city with three of my peers. Our assignment is to find our way to three specific destinations.
SIT, or the School for International Training, is a study abroad organization that champions “experiential learning” and has been doing so for over fifty years. All of the students on the program joke about this “experiential” process. We take a wrong turn on the bus on the way to school? Experiential learning. A student forgets their passport to apply for a Mozambican visa to go on our next excursion? Experiential learning. It is quickly becoming a punchline; even our staff laughs from time to time when we quip about our learning process, but there is something to be said for learning through discovery and experience.
We do not have a traditional class schedule. It is eight a.m. to five p.m. almost every day. We learn isiZulu, one of the eleven languages of South Africa and one of the main languages of Kwazulu-Natal, the province we live and learn in, but that is the most structure we have in a day. The rest of a day usually includes an excursion to a museum or an NGO, a guest lecture, and some kind of discussion about politics in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Each day I learn something new about this beautiful country. It could be in school, in a formal setting with my academic director, or in a conversation with my host family about their day to day life or political opinions.
I am aware. I read the news. I keep up to date on current events. Yet South Africa and its politics continuously challenge my beliefs, views, and understanding of global politics. There is a world beyond United States politics and American struggle. In many ways, South African struggle mirrors a lot of systems of oppression in the United States.
There is this idea that sounds quite silly to a lot of the foreign students in my program: South Africa as a “rainbow nation.” It is one of the guiding principles of the African National Congress, the party of influential leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Albert Luthuli. In my own words, it is the idea that South Africa belongs to all who live in it‒black, white, Indian, or anyone else that feels at home here.
As an American, this is foreign to me. I come from a nation where the political left prides itself in the power of individual identity, myself included. South Africa brands itself as having a larger national identity than most countries with the same levels of diversity. Whether or not this rings true is up for debate, but it is an interesting contrast to my home country nonetheless. I do not know if one way is right or wrong quite yet, but South Africa has a spirit of healing and forgiveness, in light of a very recent political wound, that is quite beautiful and worth celebrating.