5 Ways to Prepare for Studying Abroad in South Africa

By Laura Archambault, ISA Program Manager for South Africa

South Africa is an amazing location with so much to offer any student who decides to study abroad in the “rainbow nation!” Based on my personal experience, here are five ways to prepare for studying abroad in South Africa that I wish someone had told me before I started my journey.


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1) Learn about South Africa’s History

Have a basic working knowledge about the history of South Africa. It helped me greatly, not only in my classes, but also with learning and understanding the local culture. South Africa is still transitioning from the Apartheid Era and it still greatly influences people’s lives today. Knowing this history will allow you to be sensitive to certain topics surrounding the effects of Apartheid and the local disparities that are still affecting South Africans every day.

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2) Pack for Summer, Spring, Winter, and Fall!

The packing list will be slightly dependent on where exactly in South Africa you choose to study. If you are anywhere other than the northeastern part of South Africa, you will need to pack for all seasons! Cape Town and Port Elizabeth get chilly in the winter.  Your housing will have heat, but it probably won’t be extremely well insulated. You don’t need a heavy winter jacket, but definitely pack a warm jacket, pants, a sweater, and a scarf!

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3) Leave the Concept of Time at Home

In South Africa you will often hear that a person or a service is on “Africa time,” which basically means “it will get there when it gets there.” The culture surrounding time in South Africa is very laid back: people walk slowly, make plans without rigid times, and have three confusing ways to mention what time they will be arriving. For example, an individual can tell you that they will come over “now,” “now now,” or “just now;” all meaning different increments of time. While the culture of time in South Africa is much more relaxed than it is in America, this does NOT apply to your school work. Professors are still strict about arriving to class on time and handing in school work when it’s due. So make sure not to let the country’s relaxed culture affect your school work!

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4) Be Open Minded

Make sure you approach your experience with an open mind. This is good advice no matter where you travel. Although South Africa has a lot of aspects that can help ease the feeling of culture shock, like McDonald’s, Italian food, and signs in English, there are many aspects that are different. Being from the United States, the socioeconomic status of individuals in South Africa is much more prominent. Townships are located right outside of cities, making the inequality that individuals face more conspicuous than it is in the U.S. Additionally; don’t be surprised to be part of open conversations about race. Race is not a taboo or highly sensitive topic in South Africa, like it is here in the United States. Do your best to be accepting of the new culture that surrounds you; South Africans probably don’t perform tasks or talk about topics in a way that you are used to, but hear them out! Part of the reason you go abroad is to learn, so always keep that in mind!

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5) Learn to Politely Defend Your Choice

Something I learned while talking to my friends who studied abroad in Europe was that they were rarely questioned about their study abroad location choice. It seems like most people understand and accept the desire to study in and travel to Europe. But I found that I, more often than not, had to explain my decision to study abroad in South Africa. Take this opportunity to share your excitement and wisdom about why South Africa is an amazing place in which to study abroad! Your explanation can range from wanting to be somewhere warm during northern hemisphere winters, the multiculturalism, the rigorous academics, or even the diverse ecological environment! Studying abroad in South Africa will be the most amazing time of your life; don’t let anyone make you think otherwise!


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