Margaret Peyton is an Ambassador who studied abroad in South Africa
Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you decide on this program?
I came to CSBSJU, in part, because of its reputation for a great study abroad program. I wanted to study abroad to broaden my understanding of the world and learn about other cultures as well as my own. I think that traveling is an important experience to have because, from it, you learn a lot about yourself, how to adapt to a variety of situations, and gain independence. I decided on South Africa because I wanted volunteer work/service learning to be a part of my experience, and Community Service Learning is a central component of the South Africa program. Additionally, South Africa is a very diverse country--both in terms of its people and its terrain. There were many interesting social dynamics to learn about and a beautiful and varied landscape to explore on weekend trips.
Briefly describe a specific cultural experience you had on your trip that made a lasting impression.
As part of our service learning at Missionvale Care Center, a group of us (about 10 students) visited the homes of the people living in the Missionvale township and did "home make-overs." These "home makeovers" involved going into one of the shacks and installing carpet, helping patch holes in the walls, cleaning dishware, and providing clean bed linens. I will spare the somewhat depressing details of one particular "home makeover" visit and just say that I found it hard to believe that an individual could live under such conditions. I thought to myself, "how can someone actually LIVE here?" This experience was one of many eye-opening exposures to the harsh realities of township life and truly highlighted the differences between what poverty looks like in the US compared to poverty in South Africa.
Describe your overall study abroad experience.
My experience was full of contrasts, as is the country of South Africa itself. We spent our mornings volunteering in one of SA's most impoverished townships and spent our evenings enjoying the comfort of beach-front flats in an upper-middle-class area of Port Elizabeth. Traveling on weekends brought us through arid savannas, over rolling hills of green, and along stretches of white sandy beaches. We met people of all colors and from all walks of life and observed the many ways that social and racial divisions linger in society as a result of the Apartheid era. No two days were ever the same in South Africa, and no two kombi rides (the van-bus we rode around Port Elizabeth on a near-daily basis) were ever the same, either. I learned so much about myself, the people in my group, the people of South Africa, and what "culture" does and doesn't mean.
Based on your experiences abroad, what are some of the benefits of spending a semester abroad? How has studying abroad contributed to your personal, academic, and professional development?
- One major benefit of studying abroad is learning how to be adaptable and flexible. The style of teaching and grading is different abroad than it is at CSBSJU, and there are many other small differences noticeable in daily life that may take some adjustment. If you only eat one specific brand of breakfast cereal--well, you might have to get over that. If you are used to your days following a set schedule, you may have to get over that as well. I know that, in our program especially, we had to adapt to what some people call "African time" -- in other words, the world moved a lot slower in SA than it does here in the US. We became accustomed to schedules being more like guidelines for the day's activities, and we had to learn how to kill time while waiting in line at the grocery store or waiting for our food to be served at restaurants. Being flexible and adaptable is very important for any profession as well as in academic and personal matters. It is valuable to be able to accommodate a variety of situations and work with a variety of different people. In terms of personal development, study abroad definitely challenges your ability to be independent. You are far away from your family and some of your close friends, as well as other comforts of home. You have to make your own decisions and step outside of your comfort zone. Personal growth comes, therefore, as a product of being far from what's familiar to you and encountering new experiences and challenges.
What advice can you offer for CSB/SJU students who are considering or planning to study abroad?
LIVE EACH AND EVERY DAY TO ITS FULLEST! You will not realize until your last days in your study abroad country that four months go by VERY fast. The experience will be over before you know it, and likely before you want it to be. I still wish I could go back to SA and live it all over again--not because I have any major regrets, but because there were so many things I wanted to do and learn that did not fit into the four months I was allotted.
Also, go into the experience with an open mind. Let go of your preconceptions of the individuals in your group and let go of your expectations for how the four months will go. More than likely, you will find yourself being best friends with people you may have disliked at the beginning, and you will be better primed to learn about your country in an unbiased manner if you have an open mind at the start. The age-old adage "expect the unexpected" is a good one to keep in mind as you embark on your study abroad experience. But do not fear the unknown -- sometimes, it is the unexpected stuff that makes your experience amazing!
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