Don’t Forget the Study in Study Abroad

Heather O’Keeffe is a student at Case Western Reserve University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Heather is currently studying abroad with ISA in Cape Town, South Africa.

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It felt so great to have my very own University of Cape Town student ID card!

Conversation regarding study abroad usually ranges from excursions, food, local culture and people, to fun activities; basically everything but studying. However, at the end of the day study comes first in study abroad. My visa says “Student”, and I tell people I’m studying at the University of Cape Town for the year, not that I’m bumming around the city on a massive yearlong vacation.

Studying abroad is all about trying new foods, meeting new people, and exploring the world beyond your front door, but it’s also about going to school. I feel like I am a student at the University of Cape Town; I am so pleased with this feeling. It means I’m more of a student than a tourist; that I’m just another young twenty year old struggling with homework and complaining about the wifi.

School in Cape Town is plenty different from school back in Cleveland. For starters, university is called “varsity” here. For the first week every time someone said varsity I thought they were talking about high school sports, but high school here is “matric.” It’s so confusing!

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The UCT Ikey Tiger’s rugby team is going to the national championships! The school spirit is awesome at the games.

Every class at UCT is divided into lectures and tuts. In lectures the professor discusses the course material. Lectures can be very packed: classes don’t have caps and sometimes students will end up standing at the back or sitting in the aisles. Tuts are devoted to looking over the course material again. In my psychology class we discuss readings for an hour and for my maths class we work on problems for a couple hours.

Homework isn’t really a thing here, which is awesome since class work only needs to be completed at weekly tuts, but is not very conducive to retention. After exposure to both systems, I prefer turning in a few physics problems every class period rather than a bunch once a week.

Midterms at UCT were stressful; I spent more time under the fluorescent lights of the library than soaking up the sunshine. After neglecting studying throughout the semester in the name of exploring Cape Town, I was forced to learn much of the course material in the days before my tests. However, the tests are worth only 15% of the grade, maximum. With two semester tests, only a handful of points awarded to tuts, the final exam is worth at least 50% of the grade. Back home exams are worth a mere 30%. I have a feeling that the reading week before finals will be dismal as I study, study, study to secure 50% of my grade.

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After a day full of studying, I love practicing with the soccer team. I have South Africa, Norwegian, and American team mates.

I’ve tried my hardest to attend classes and be a good student, but at the end of the day the GPA doesn’t transfer back home and all I need is to pass each of my classes. This set up encourages learning beyond the classroom. That doesn’t mean that my horizons cannot be broadened within the confines of the classroom in a non-academic sense.

The subtle differences between university in American and varsity in Cape Town make for cultural surprises in even the most mundane seeming situations. Just the other day I noticed cultural disparities during my maths midterm. Which goes to show that there is so much to learn, academic or otherwise, if one simply opens their eyes and chooses to take notice.

Author: Heather O'Keeffe

Oringinally from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin Heather is currently a sophmore majoring in Biomedical Engineering and minoring in Sports Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Except for the occasional Netflix coma, Heather prefers to be busy. In her life sports and traveling reign supreme. Her favorite memories include playing soccer with local kids in Istanbul, listening to English fans chant while walking to the Bernabeu, swimming through rapids in Norway, and coaching Aussie Rules in Queensland. Heather's life long goal is to work, in any capacity, for the Olympics.

5 thoughts

  1. I studied abroad in Spain and can say that while the majority of my cultural learning took place outside of the classroom walls, I did learn quite a bit from my professors about the Spanish language and culture. Having such a great experience abroad the first time has led me to quitting my job to go teach English in Spain this upcoming fall. Glad you’re enjoying your time abroad!

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