Eliana Stienessen

Eliana is an Ambassador who studied abroad in South Africa

Major: Psychology, Pre-Occupational Therapy


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

I took the opportunity to study abroad because CSB/SJU makes traveling so easy. Everything is well organized and established in the host country, so I knew I would be getting an excellent experience. I chose to study in South Africa because even though many programs interested me, I thought I would have the most difficulty traveling to South Africa on my own. As a working adult, I figured it would be easier to find my way around Europe because it is closer and more culturally similar. That being said, another reason I chose to go all the way to South Africa was the fact that it is so different from what I see every day in Minnesota. The cultural traditions and diversity would be hard to come by and fully experience in any setting other than Study Abroad. I felt that the South Africa program most closely matched my personal and academic goals and interests.                           

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

During spring break we visited Cape Town, and for a couple of nights stayed with host families in the township of Gugulethu. Townships are very poor areas of the country created during apartheid that still exist today. There are stereotypes of townships being unsafe and violent, but when we stayed with our families we saw otherwise. The truth is, the people who live in townships get a bad reputation that they do not deserve. Yes, it can be dangerous at times, but the majority of the people are not the ones who create danger. Two of the host mamas explained to us that white South Africans are afraid of the townships, so they stay out. Unfortunately, the racial separation in the country prevents the integration that Nelson Mandela and many other freedom fighters worked so hard for. To be a white student staying in Gugulethu showed other white people that it is okay to go there and the children in the township that not all white people are racist or mistrustful. In such a racially conscious country, it was important to me to show my host family's children that there are white people who care about them and are happy to visit their home.

Describe your overall study abroad experience.

It was hard to have any expectations about South Africa. I do not mean that in a negative way, but I had no idea what a plausible expectation would look like for a country that I was very unfamiliar with. There is so much history, diversity, cultural richness, and natural beauty in the country that no preparation would have accurately described. I met so many new people and tried so many new things. The program challenged me at times to go out of my comfort zone and put the way I was used to doing things aside. The best way to learn about real life in South Africa was to talk to the people. I became friends with fellow students and other locals who readily welcomed me into their lives. South Africans are extremely friendly people, and this is what opened me up so I could let their country in. Everyone I met encouraged me, whether frankly or unintentionally, to live life to the fullest. This was the most profound personal impact I received from studying abroad.

At school I took courses that were completely unique to the country. I learned about South African music, literature, politics, and history. I even took a marine biology class. The knowledge I gained from these professors could not compare to what I would have learned from an American professor teaching the same courses. The first-hand experience that they have gave the classes tangible worth. The marine biology professors really do spend their time researching off the coast of our city, and the music professor explained traditional song styles that I encountered in museums, on excursions, and even in the NMMU Choir that I have the privilege of singing with. Academically, I felt I was getting information from the source. I could learn about South Africa while staying in the United States, but it is such a unique experience to learn about it while living there. Overall, the program required me to examine myself and the culture in which I was immersed. It was difficult at times, but always worth the effort. I know more about myself and see that I have potential that I never saw before. I went to this foreign country not having any good guess about what I would find. Now, it is not foreign. It is another home.

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?

This was my first international experience, and it has created in me a very real intention to see as much of the world as I can in my lifetime. Living in another country for four months, you have experiences and encounters that you would never have if you just stayed home all the time. These experiences taught me about myself. For example, I never knew that I liked sushi until I lived in a coastal city, and I never knew how to kayak, surf, or ride a horse until I was presented with the opportunity to learn. Sushi, kayaking, surfing, and horseback riding are all things I could find in the U.S. but being in a constant mindset of openness while studying abroad helped me to embrace every opportunity and always ask, "Why not?". I carried that mindset with me when I came back home. Seeing the world has opened up the possibilities for what I see that my life could be.
Academically, I was challenged to take courses out of my usual departments. I took a marine biology course, and having previously spent only one day at the ocean in my entire life, thought I was going in blind. I found that exploring new subjects can spark interest in a topic that never would have occurred in my normal routine. Whenever I was at the beach I looked at the life around me and could name some of the animals I saw on the rocks or in the sand. This is just one example of how taking the rare opportunity to go outside of my own academic norm helped me become a more well-rounded student.
Professionally, the service learning was the biggest help to me. I worked with people of all ages at Missionvale Care Centre in the Missionvale townships. As a psychology major, I was intrigued by the counseling sessions I sat in on in the clinic. As a pre-healthcare student I ventured into the other areas of the clinic and helped with urine tests, bandaging, pharmaceuticals, and home visits. I made connections in the clinic that gave me both observational and practical experience that will be valuable as I apply to and attend graduate school for occupational therapy. The other biggest benefit from volunteering at the care center was working with the children in the school. I am interested in working with children professionally, and at the school I regularly interacted with students of all abilities, talents, and personalities. There was a reading class for students who were behind the others; many of these students would likely be diagnosed with ADHD, mild Autism, or an intellectual disability. I expect to encounter this population frequently as an occupational therapist, and helping with this particular classroom gave me more practice interacting with the types of people I hope to see in my professional career.

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

One thing I made sure to do was not to limit myself to which programs I could apply to. I made room for my common curriculum requirements in my regular CSB/SJU semesters in my four-year plan. Certain designations, like humanities, and offered in almost, if not every, study abroad program; however, counting on getting credit for something like theology while abroad really limits which programs fit what you need.
I would also encourage students to ask any and all questions! The reason I want to be an ambassador is to be a resource . I want to share what I have learned so that future study abroad students will feel prepared and excited about where they are going.