Stephanie’s Experience in South Africa

Stephanie Gago

Stephanie studied in South Africa on the CIEE: Cape Town, Arts and Sciences Program during the Fall of 2015.

If you could give only one reason, why would you suggest other students study abroad?

I would say that studying abroad makes one actually comprehend that the U.S.A. is not the only existing place in the world. Like, living in the States, we see these commercials of little starving kids in “Africa”, with little clothing, living in a shack, flies chilling on their face, and it gives us this idea of how the entire continent of Africa would be like. Well, I am here to say that people all over Africa hates these commercials, and I can see why! Most places in Africa do not look like that. It’s modern, they have skylines, they have beautiful shopping malls, highways, nice cars, amazing sense of style, and love Drake and Kendrick Lamar, just like people in the States would. And no, they don’t ride lions and cheetahs to class! I would suggest another student to study abroad to just so that they can see the world for themselves, and not accept what they see on television.

If you could go abroad again, what would you do differently?

If I could go again, I would want to meet and get to know as many people as I could. Naturally, I am very shy, and reserved, and tend to keep a small circle. When I first came to South Africa, I had trouble making friends with the Americans I lived with, and I thought the world was over. But then I began making great relationships with the locals. I was the American girl with the South African friends, while the others were having trouble making friends outside of the American group. I made a few very close friends, that I still speak to today and who have even visited me! I wish I could have made more connections like that, but the ones I have, I will treasure their friendship forever.

What specific factors influenced your decision to go abroad?

There was a point in my life where I felt stagnant, and I felt the need to branch out. Growing up in a low income household, and being Latina, many would not want change. But I did, I didn’t want to continue the lifestyle many people like me were. I wanted to be different, experience things that girls like me never had the opportunity to, and show them that it was possible.

What concerns/fears did you have about studying abroad, and how did you overcome them?

I was so afraid of being on my own. It was the first time ever, considering I commuted from home to Penn State Abington for my entire college life. And the the thought of the possibility of me making no friends was terrifying. I was also afraid about money, and not having enough of it. I overcame all of these fears just by accepting who I am (as cliche as it sounds). I was the same old me, shy, but people wanted to get to know me. They would come up to me and say hello, ask about me and about my life. I also learned that I am perfectly capable of living on my own. And the money? Yea, you’ll find a way. Sure you’ll probably miss out on sky diving and shark cage diving, but I realized that’s not what I wanted out of this trip.

What was it about your program specifically that fit your personal goals over other programs?

I wanted to expose myself, and that’s exactly what I did with this program.

How have you used the skills you learned abroad now that you are back; either in job searching, or in other activities?

I learned that relationships and connections are the most important things you need in life to be successful, whether its job related, or even in life in general.

Did you participate in any service projects while on your program? How did that enhance your study abroad experience?

We went to a place called the Arc where recovering drug addicts, single mothers, orphans, and many other people that need help stay. Here, the American students played with the children and served hot dogs. Simple things like that made the children extremely happy and appreciative! Probably the happiest day in my study abroad experience.

Stephanie Gago spotlight 1What experiences did you have while studying abroad that you feel you could not have had if you had stayed at Penn State?

The most memorable experience I had while studying abroad was the “Fee Must Fall” protest. The protest was led by university students fighting for a zero increase in school fees, which would have cause many students (predominantly black) to be unable to pay for school. Not only did thousands of students from the University of Cape Town come together to protest, thousands of other students from universities all over South Africa were also apart of the movement. This national protest was the most incredible event I have ever witnessed. There, is when I realized just how powerful young people can be. Even though it was not advised, I joined the students, marching all over Cape Town, shutting down universities, and even an entire city. I can still remember how passionately the students sang these beautiful struggle songs as they marched. Students even marched through parliament, causing police to become violent. Unfortunately some students got injured and others arrested, but those who did were highly praised, even called heroes and leaders. And after that vigorous week of protesting, the increase of fees depleted. That was the most emotional, but yet most inspiring week whilst studying abroad. I know I would have never experienced anything like this if I would have stayed at Penn State. I am so thankful to be apart of such a movement.

What advice would you give to outbound study abroad students to help them make the most out of their study abroad experiences?

Meet as many people as possible! Be kind, be careful, and just have an amazing time.

Share an experience where you interacted with someone in your host culture in a way that taught you something.

I made an extremely close friend while studying abroad, Siya. We spent everyday together. He was the first person I interacted with at the University of Cape Town. Siya is probably the sweetest person I know, and would do anything for me. He taught me that I was good enough. I remember I was doing poorly in our class and I would just give up. I accepted the fact that I was going to fail. But if it wasn’t for this guy pushing me, I would probably have, but fortunately I passed! He taught me that if you care for someone, you would do anything to show them that they are good enough.

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