Kathy Larrea

Kathy is an Ambassador who studied abroad in South Africa

Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you decide on this program?

My decision to study abroad was a no brainer. In fact, I wouldn't even call it a decision; it was just something I'd been anticipating since I received my acceptance letter to CSB. Deciding to study in South Africa was a little tougher. Ultimately, three factors helped me pick South Africa. The first was the service component of the program. I wanted my study abroad experience to be more than a four month long vacation. I wanted it to mean something, so when I heard about the extensive volunteering we would be doing, my interest was definitely piqued. Second, as an adrenaline junkie, South Africa presented a lot of opportunities satisfy my need for adventure. During my semester abroad, I jumped off a bridge (700ft, no big deal), pet lions, tigers and elephants, climbed a mountain, learned to surf (sort of, let's be honest) and climbed down a stone staircase with sheer cliffs on either side with nothing to hold onto but a slim metal wire. How could I pass that up? The third aspect of the program that made my decision final was the idea of visiting Africa. Hello! When was I ever going to have such a great excuse to visit Africa? After figuring out these three things, it was a done deal.

Briefly describe a specific cultural experience you had on your trip that made a lasting impression.

How do I even pick one? There were so many moments where I thought, "Well, I'm clearly not in Minnesota anymore." Volunteering at the Missionvale Care Centre was unquestionably the highlight of my trip but one moment that particularly stands out occurred during my week of post travel up the Wild Coast. While staying in Port St. John's, a tiny, rural town at the mouth of the Umngazi River, our small group of five decided to experience the "Isinuka Mud Caves and Sulphur Pools" offered by our backpackers. Our guide, Sbu, drove us into the smallest town I've ever seen (two buildings, I'm not kidding) where we climbed into a cave on the side of a cliff. Once inside, Sbu and a man from the town slathered us in a gritty, tan colored mud. As that was drying, we climbed even further up the cliff until we reached the top, where there was a natural sulfur pool. We took turns getting a more intricate design painted on us with the mud from the pool, this time a dark gray color to contrast against the original beige. We then stood in the pool to experience the healing offered by the sulfur. While we stood together, Sbu explained to us the beliefs of the mPondo people and their uses for the various forms of sulfur present in the area. After we made our way back down the cliff, we washed ourselves off in yet another natural sulfur pool. A woman from the town was there as well taking a bath and though she tried to stay modest, there was little any of us could do to avoid the view. The entire experience was one of the most awkward things I've ever done in my life, but I think it is the coolest thing we did during our week of post travel. I learned a lot about the mPondo tribe, which prior to the event I knew next to nothing about because they live in an area far from where we lived in South Africa. I am extremely grateful that they allowed us to partake in their traditional rituals and I think it was an enlightening experience I will never forget.

Describe your overall study abroad experience.

South Africa is a breathtaking country and I had an unbelievably unforgettable semester abroad. I feel so lucky to have been able to live in a country with such a rich yet haunting history because the culture is so unique as a result. I learned so much about myself, my political views, the intricacies of poverty and overall cultural awareness while living on King's Beach, eating calamari, cheering on the Southern Kings, planting gardens in Missionvale, singing in and learning Xhosa and Afrikaans, dancing at Balizza, going on several safaris, packaging food parcels, climbing Table Mountain, watching the sunrise over the Indian Ocean, scuba diving with a massive seal colony, experiencing the legacies of Apartheid first hand, living in a township for a weekend, driving up the Wild Coast, and getting to know people who I now consider some of my best friends. It is seriously the best of both worlds!

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?

Studying abroad is the biggest growing experience I've ever had. Volunteering at the Missionvale Care Centre was a huge part of my personal growth. Not only did it challenge me to comprehend what it really means to live in poverty, I also made many personal connections with those living in the Missionvale Township that ultimately helped me understand and accept the realities of poverty. It's a tough lesson to learn, but it will completely change your outlook on life. Furthermore, I gained independence, confidence and a new worldview that will benefit my professional career as well. Academically, I was given the chance to experience another education system and take classes that didn't fit into my major. This gave me the opportunity to really live out my liberal arts education, both through the classes I was taking and my experiences with the culture of South Africa.

What advice can you offer for CSB/SJU students who are considering or planning to study abroad?

DO IT! Seriously, just do everything. Don't hesitate. Don't be scared. Don't make excuses. Be open. Just because you do something one way doesn't mean anyone else is doing it wrong. Talk to people. Eat something you've never eaten before (kudu meat is so good!) Scared of heights? Jump off a bridge. I can't stress enough how important it is to do things you would never do if you were at home. It will make your trip that much more memorable. Keep a journal, write down the funny quotes, update your blog, and keep little mementos. Finally, get ready to fall in love with your country because you won't be able to stop yourself.

Do you have questions about studying abroad in South Africa, or want access to my blog? Email Kathy at k1larrea@csbsju.edu