A handful of students sit hunched over the computers in Leslie Social Southside Labs on a grey Wednesday morning, with a typical sampling of hoodies, phones, and squinting eyes. Two students buzz and clang in – one a stocky, smiley, tanned sort of male, the other a petite, Pinterest-cut-out girl. As they deposit their baggage and settle into their chosen seats, they are talking. They continue to talk throughout their stay. And to the aggravated shushers around me, apparently their voices carry a little too well.
But more than just being receivers of harsh glares, this pair gets their fair share of eye rolls.
“Like, I just don’t know.”
American Semester Study Abroad (SSA) students do not have a great reputation among University of Cape Town students. They’re often the easiest and least controversial targets to laugh at (not with). Their accent sticks out like a sore thumb, they seem to party from Monday to Sunday, and, as student Mosa Ramosa comments, “They stick together all the time and don’t want to make friends with anyone else. It’s kind of awkward. I mean, why come to another country if you’re not going to chill with other people from that country?”
I did some searching on the International Academic Programmes Office (IAPO) website to see if there really are American students everywhere you turn, or whether it just feels that way. In 2012, there were about 26,000 students enrolled at UCT. About 4,000 of them were international students doing their full degrees here, plus almost 1,000 SSA students. So, 19% of the student population is not South African, with over 100 countries represented on campus. One of UCT’s most valued policies is ‘internationalisation’ – bringing the world to Cape Town.
One of those SSA students is Hannah Mould from North Carolina. She came to Cape Town with her school’s exchange program, and is studying in the Humanities Faculty. She had 70 different options of where to study abroad.
“I chose Cape Town for several reasons,” she says. “I knew it was one of the most beautiful cities in the world.” Hannah also liked some of the specifics the city had to offer – teaching in English, summertime, and a very different culture (“aka, not Europe”).
Though she’s received some judgements for her accent, she’s really enjoyed her time in South Africa. And, locals may be surprised to know, she actually knew a bit about the continent before she arrived.
“Most people assume that Americans think Africa is just one big safari, but having been to Kenya, and knowing a lot of friends who have traveled/lived in Africa, I had a pretty good idea about what the city of Cape Town would be like.”
Lesley-Anne Jonathan works for the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) as a Residence Assistant, helping American students settle into Cape Town life for their semester here. She has seen some of the difficulties they face in adjusting to an entirely new culture, something many critical UCT students don’t even take into account.
Jonathan has watched most of their frustrations surface when it comes to service delivery – slow internet and building maintenance, for example – and how apathetic South Africans are when dealing with these issues. Learning to function in a different society is difficult for anyone, not least when locals view you as spoiled.
She says that the 28 students she works with have “learnt that the cultural background of South Africa is less to do with education and knowledge (as it is in America) but more to do with elderly wisdom and being taught how to do or not do things.”
But Jonathan also thinks having the SSA students around benefits South Africa. She finds the American students engage with their school material as a way of expanding their worldview and for interest, while local students simply study in order to get a job.
It’s easy to mock the American students. But, by going on an international exchange in the first place, it looks like they’re making an effort to break out of their cultural box. Some of them do it more effectively than others. Perhaps UCT students ought to embrace this opportunity to learn about a different culture and diversify our beloved campus.
Hannah puts it nicely: “One of the main things I love about studying here is the diversity at UCT, and in Cape Town as a whole. There are so many different cultures, accents, and types of people.” That will be the legacy of the University of Cape Town’s Semester Study Abroad program if we continue to welcome students from everywhere, even the United States of America.