College Life in South Africa

Even at a young age, most American children are of the belief that their lives will consist of schooling until they reach at least age 21.  For the most part, the question is not if one will attend college, but where.  In my family, the idea of skipping out on the college experience after high school is not given an ounce of consideration.  Even as the oldest child, not having siblings who had gone to college first, I knew that I would someday be a university student.  My belief continued further upon entering high school and receiving an advisor specifically for the purpose of helping me get into college, attending was never considered an option – it was an expectation.

Through our assigned readings and experiences in South Africa thus far, I have been able to draw several conclusions about the differences between college life in the United States and college life in southern Africa.  I have found that the main contrast between the two locations involves the differences in the way that each population views attendance in a college.  While many American students view college as an anticipated phase in their lives – simply another stepping block to be conquered, many South Africans see it from behind binoculars, as a lengthy and sometimes unrealistic distance to travel.  Sure, they can see it and they know it’s there.  But will they ever make it there?  Will there be enough money for tuition and all of the necessities that come along with a college education?  Instead of spending money to receive further schooling, should they start a career right out of high school in order to make money and support their families?  These are the questions that many South Africans are forced to consider when faced with the post high school graduation dilemma.  And while there are Americans who do face these same issues, the majority view in the US is that college is the only way to go after grade 12.

Another fascinating aspect of the South African high school graduate mindset that I found while speaking with some of the locals in Cape Town, is that there is a high emphasis on western education, and particularly education in the United States.  Although there are universities located all over South Africa, many students who aspire to a higher education see the states as the epicenter of learning.  Two of the local men we met in Cape Town explained that they grew up in South Africa but both attended American universities to obtain their undergraduate education.  They emphasized the fact that they were fortunate enough to have families who could support them financially, and that for many South Africans, this endeavor is simply not feasible.  This made me think about growing up in the United States and wondering which American school I would attend, as well as the fact that I am fortunate enough to attend an American school and study abroad in a different country.

Concerning the performance of the students in universities across the two different countries, much can be said about preparation before entering college.  As President Lambert found in his meeting with Brian O’Connell, rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, a large majority of UWC’s students are underprepared for studies at the university level.  The lack of highly trained students can be attributed to the meager academic standards of the recent past, under-qualified and grossly underpaid teachers, as well as poorly funded primary and high schools.  This brings up the important difference in the status of education as a whole in the two societies.  Education is prioritized among the top values in the American society, and there are laws in place to make sure that all children stay in school and have the right to a proper education.  And while similar laws may exist in South Africa, the attitude towards school and the emphasis placed on the value of education are simply not comparable to those of the US.  While the majority of American students feel prepared to enter a university upon graduation from high school, a majority of South African students struggle to succeed in college because of the lack of groundwork in their educational pasts.

Reading Kaffir Boy (Mark Mathabane) truly opened my eyes to South African life during the apartheid as well as the lasting effects that still linger over the country today.  Mathabane’s experience reinforces the view of a college experience as a luxury, the high emphasis on western universities and the low emphasis on pre-college education in the South African society.  Although Kaffir Boy was written about South Africa in the 1970’s, Mathabane’s words and experiences still reflect a part of the society even in 2010.  Johannes was determined to enter an American university, even through his poor education and understanding of the difficulties that surround getting into a college.  Growing up in the township of Alexandra made his college-bound decisions even more difficult.  Even though college was a luxury to him and all of those living around him, he had the mindset of a typical American student – he would get to a university no matter what it took.  By staying in school and out of gangs, and persevering, just as so many South African and American students do, Mathabane followed his dream and ended up in a university with a full scholarship to play tennis.

While on a tour of UWC, our class learned about some of the obvious differences between an American and a South African college experience:

·         Tuition at UWC is a small fraction of the price of tuition at Elon

·         The campus is 90% black/colored and 10% white

·         There is no Greek life at UWC

·         Textbooks can be found in three different languages and all classes are offered in at least two

·         PowerPoint presentations are nonexistent, as are any kind of meal plans

·         If a student falls behind in a class, he or she must attend a tutor for three weeks, and then a test, administered by the tutor, must be passed

In comparing UWC to Elon, these were the major differences that we noted.  However, aside from the many obvious comparisons that are almost unavoidable as a tourist in another country, our class has also been given the opportunity to delve deeper into Africa and its history and culture, which allows a basis of comparison on a deeper level.  So while we noted that the campuses of Elon and the University of the Western Cape appear similarly beautiful, we have also come to understand the many differences that lie in the decisions, motivations and opportunities behind the attendance at UWC as well as all other South African universities.

After touring this beautiful country and visiting many of the crèches (preschools) and particularly Ekukhanyisweni, the primary school that we visited today, we have been able to see and experience what the pre-college education of South Africa looks like firsthand.  I have never been more grateful for my education and the opportunity that I had to attend Elon University.  Today at Ekukhanyisweni (which is located in Alexandra – the township where Mark Mathabane grew up), I met a 12-year-old boy who lives with his grandmother and eight other siblings.  He has dreams of going to college and becoming a doctor so that “no one in his family has to be sick anymore.”  Here was a child removing the binoculars, and actually reaching toward higher education, viewing it as something tangible, and not just a far away, unrealistic dream.  And feeling the passion and determination that radiated from his words, I was immediately convinced that he will succeed.  My dream for him is that he stays in school and works hard to overcome the difficulties that lie in being prepared for and obtaining a higher education in South Africa.

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