Jeff Theys

Exchange students are often confronted with quizzical looks from South Africans who always seem to ask the same question: why South Africa?

For many westerners, the name Africa sends the imagination into a frenzy. For some it evokes the idyllic pastoral images of Karen Blixen’s memoirs, for others the dystopian country slowly succumbing to anarchy. Whatever the reason, the idea of South Africa is powerful enough to draw exchange students from across the world.

Many exchange students want to get as far away from their normal lives as possible. They want an impression of life in a foreign country from a local, not a tourist, perspective. They want to experience the challenges that come with being South African: overcoming language barriers, cultural differences and national identity issues.

Most exchange students share houses in Tuksdorp, a residence designated for international and postgraduate students. While the experience has helped them bond among each other, many agree it has made it more difficult to integrate with locals. Canadian student Thomas Yeo says, “The university should make a better effort to mix students. Sometimes it feels like apartheid in Tuksdorp.”

They also need to adjust to the physical restrictions in Pretoria. The reality of an environment in which everything is surrounded by high fences and topped with barbed wire or electric cables is so ingrained in the South African psyche that people don’t seem to notice it. Dutch student Niels Westerlaken says, “You get used to it pretty quickly, but it doesn’t make me feel any safer.”

To get closer to South African culture, exchange students choose to ignore many warnings and do exactly what they are advised against doing. Yeo says “If you told someone you were catching a minibus to Soweto you would be met with looks of horror followed by a serious warning not to go. Truth is, most people appreciate you have made the effort to see their way of life. Most of all, they respect that you are not afraid.”

Some feel their perceptions have changed during their five months in Pretoria. American student Nathan Moore says, “I no longer feel like I am projecting my stereotypes onto South Africa.” He has also noticed more racial interaction as time goes on. And Westerlaken believes Dutch students have better opportunities to mix with the Afrikaans community because of the linguistic similarity.

Exchange students are in a situation in which they can compare the functioning of UP to their home universities. Many share a collective frustration with the achingly slow administration. Moore says he has given up fighting the office staff and taken the African attitude: saying, “Over time things will just straighten themselves out.” He adds that the lack of internet might be his biggest complaint: “Students [having] to pay for internet at a university is ridiculous.”

Opinions about the structure and expectations of courses also vary. While Yeo feels the “workload is light and the standards are lower”, others feels like the distribution of assessments is inconsistent and the marking is harsh. In Germany, business student Julian Wicht is used to having the freedom to interact with his courses and apply his imagination. At UP he is perplexed by the lecturers’ “expectations of memorisation and the regurgitation of text books.”

Exchange students come for the challenge of experiencing a different way of living and learning. That is exactly what studying at the University of Pretoria can offer: a chance to experience South Africa in all its frustrating glory.

Image:JP Nathrass

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