The first day of school here and abroad

From CLE to Cape Town

Heather O'Keeffe

After two months of winter break, my school year has begun at the University of Cape Town. Sunday night I was a little excited to start off the semester, but mostly I was dreading having an 8 a.m. class every day of the week. 8 a.m.! I haven’t been alert at that time since high school!

A sunny morning made waking up much easier and I made it to the Jammie stop nice and early. The Jammie is just like the Greenie, a transport system crossing campus and the surrounding areas. The Jammie is a bit better though, the buses are larger and they cover a greater area: I can get to the mall three neighborhoods away any time of the week. However, sometimes Jammies break down and there is no handy smartphone app with which to check the schedule.

I have been utilizing the Jammie a lot the past few days because UCT is built into the base of a mountain. Forget the Elephant Stairs, I practically need hiking boots and a CamelBak to make it to class!

The hike to campus or the crowded, stuffy bus ride is well worth it though. There is no way Huffington Post could rank UCT as one of the ugliest campuses; it truly is gorgeous. The buildings are made of old brick and covered in vines; trees line the brick road dissecting campus; and the students are incredibly diverse.

There is a plaza in the middle of campus, Jammie Plaza, that is a really popular hangout area between classes. Sitting on the steps of the plaza, the view of the surrounding suburbs and townships of Cape Town, all the way to the distant, hazy mountains is fantastic. At the bottom of a huge run of steps, someone painted “Look Back” onto the sidewalk. And look back one should do indeed. Up the steps, past the plaza and classic university halls, Devil’s Peak plummets upwards into the blue sky. Better yet, there is no Ugly Statue to taint an otherwise stellar campus.

As briefly mentioned, the student body at UCT is incredibly diverse. 26,000 students from across South Africa and beyond converge on this one campus to attend varsity (that’s what they call university) at the premier school in Africa. Students from all walks of life crisscross Jammie Plaza: some have never used internet before coming to UCT, others are insanely wealthy. It is an interesting glimpse into a post-apartheid nation.

The clothing attire of students is a bit different, as well. If I had to sum up the look, it would be a laid-back, beachy style. Ladies’ attire is fairly similar, but men’s attire is wildly different and I have no issue with it. You won’t see Timberlands, jorts, cargo shorts, basketball shorts or grey sweatpants with grey sweatshirts here. Lots of guys look they walked straight out of a Rip Curl advertisement: flip flops, colorful shorts or board shorts that are above the knee and non-sports related t-shirts (surfing being the exception).

Finally, once I have taken in all of my surroundings, I arrive at class. Most of my classes here run four or five days a week and have a tutorial or lab in addition: It’s pretty full-on.

One of the main topics during the first day of lectures was: What do you have to do get your DP? DP stands for duly performed and is the benchmark of achievement needed to write the exam. Essentially it’s a really good way to prevent students from being lazy and skipping class. For example, a DP requirement could be attending 80 percent of all tutorials and handing in all assignments. If you don’t get your DP, you can’t write the exam and have just wasted the past twelve weeks.

UCT is in the top 200 of universities in the world, and it really is an excellent school. However, since South Africa is still a developing nation, the university is held back from reaching its full potential in many aspects.

These third world aspects of university are the greatest difference I have thus far noticed.

While UCT uses PeopleSoft (SIS) for basic purposes, the majority of systems are paper-based. This means that rather than click “Enroll” on SIS, you must queue for literally hours to speak with a course advisor and have your classes approved. I waited in line for 1.5 hours two weeks ago just to receive my student ID, a process that took all of a minute at CWRU. If you want to add or drop a course, you must see so-and-so in that building and then hand in a form at some office on the other side of campus. By no means is it an efficient system, but with millions of South Africans in poverty and many without an internet connection, it is the best system UCT has.

Besides a few administrative issues that have only been exacerbated by the paper-based system, the first days of class have gone by without a hitch. Some of my classes seem interesting, I’ve already taken a doze during a few. Some lecturers are great, others speak right into the chalkboard, and I’ve forgotten everything I learned in calculus III already. I’m curious to see what classes will be like in a few weeks: Will they be harder or easier than CWRU? Boring or more exciting?

I’m sure an university education is essentially the same everywhere and that the big picture will be fairly similar to CWRU. But if and when it’s not, I’ll just have to sit on the steps of Jammie plaza, look at the city, the people, the mountain and appreciate that I’m not at CWRU, that things should be different, because I’m lucky enough to study in South Africa.

Heather O’Keeffe is a second-year biomedical engineering and sports medicine student attending the University of Cape Town for the year. She is pleased as punch with her faint, yet apparent tan and her favorite Cape Town beach has been featured on Shark Week.