Lessons from Cape Town

Current adventure: CWRU

Heather O’Keeffe

Monday was my first day back at Case Western Reserve University since 2013. After studying abroad at the University of Cape Town (UCT) for a year, I felt like a freshman all over again. The snowy start to the semester, though pretty, was a chilly shock to the system after sunny South Africa. Despite the daunting workload, I’m excited to start back up at CWRU, and hopefully I can apply a few lessons I learned in Cape Town.

As an American in South Africa, all I wanted to do was make local friends. But it proved difficult to penetrate established friend groups. Naturally, I made friends with other exchange students and our shared eagerness to explore Cape Town bonded our friendship. I learned to open myself up to others more quickly since the best way to enjoy yourself and the company of others is to let your true colors show.

By being friendly to all those I met and inviting new acquaintances to hang out, I rarely felt lonely, even after flying around the world solo.

By joining sports teams at UCT, I was able to make lots of South African friends. Through persistent texts and friendliness, my local friends and I bonded outside of practice.

So while I’m a bit weary of reconnecting with old friends and making new friends at CWRU, I made lifelong friends in a country where previously I had none. Additionally, I understand how clique-y friend groups can be without meaning to; this semester I aim to ask new friends and especially international students to hang out outside of the context in which we met.

My favorite part of studying abroad was exploring UCT, Cape Town, South Africa and the rest of the continent. Throughout the year I was fortunate enough to travel to new countries, but even when Cape Town-bound, I tried my damnedest to do something new every weekend. So even when up to my eyeballs studying for linear algebra, I sought out an activity uniquely South African. Whether that meant trying out a new restaurant or taking a stroll through a neighborhood, each weekend brought a unique adventure.

Cleveland doesn’t seem as exotic as Cape Town, but it, too, holds potential for adventure and exploration. If every week I put aside my textbooks and turn off Netflix to support a CWRU club or cruise the Healthline to downtown, Spring 2015 will be a success in my guidebook.
One of the beauties of studying abroad with CWRU is that the grades don’t matter. The Office of Education Abroad understands students’ desire to seek new experiences and are empathetic to culture shock and language barriers students might encounter while abroad. For this reason, as long as I passed my classes at UCT I received CWRU credit. While I’m not one to settle for straight C’s, this policy allowed me to take my focus off of grades and onto living and experiencing.

CWRU is a hard school and the workload is no joke, but my peers at UCT taught me that university really is more about learning than your performance. It was commonplace for engineers to fail at least one class in their undergrad and across the university A’s were the exception not the rule. Since students were pleased with B’s and C’s, they turned their focus to comprehension. Students would ask professors follow up questions during lectures and intellectual conversations would ensue. They cared about the material rather than retaining just enough to ace the class.

I urge you to use the lessons I learned abroad: actively make new friends, focus on exploring the community and concentrate more on learning than grades. Hopefully they will ease my transition back into CWRU and maybe make your semester (almost) as exciting as a semester abroad.

Heather O’Keeffe is a junior studying biomedical engineering and sports medicine. If her family gets a dog she wants to name it Sportscenter so she can introduce it to others as “This is Sportscenter. Duh nuh nuh. Duh nuh nuh.”