Back to School

Claire Quinn
September 14, 2016

School has always been an area where I excel. I like school, and learning, and connecting with my peers and professors. Going to school has always been an enjoyable experience, mostly because I was always comfortable. At Gettysburg College, where I am working on my Bachelors degree in the states, I am one of 2,700 students. Within the departments I major in, political science and public policy, I know all of my professors on a first name basis, and in most of my classes, that reach a cap of about 25 students, I know a majority of my peers. At Gettysburg, I have an established routine, a familiar spot in the library and expectations for my weekly workload. Academically the school fits me well. When I was searching for where I would start my undergraduate career, I had it listed as one of my “target” school. Gettysburg College offers a close-knit community of engaged students that are committed to finishing college and moving on to do great things. At my school, there is a fantastic the alumni network that will likely help me once I’ve graduated. My undergraduate career at Gettysburg has been essential to my experience of higher learning, but it has never pushed me very far outside of my comfort zone.

Enter the University of Cape Town.

Most of the stories I had heard from friends about studying abroad involved “no class meetings on Monday or Friday” or “wine tasting class”. I sent my application to UCT with clouded dreams of spending my sunny days on the beach pleasure reading, blissfully ignoring my academic responsibilities. Oh how I wish those dreams were the reality.

Contrary to my preconceived notions of my education overseas, the University of Cape Town is not for the academically faint of heart. Within my first week of class, I knew this was the case. I didn’t know what true dedication to one’s education looked like until UCT. In the states, finishing your undergraduate degree is expected. If you want an impressive job with a decent yearly salary, you must finish your undergraduate degree. In South Africa, university degrees hold weight. For many South Africans, finishing high school is an extremely impressive feat. Imagine getting into UCT, one of the best and most difficult universities in Africa.

UCT has challenged me unlike any school environment that I have experienced. During orientation, when the staff told us that achieving a mark of 75 or above was an A, I was sure I’d ace this semester. But as my naiive self has learned quite quickly, the students that receive As are the ones that work furiously for days on every assignment they hand in. They are the students that stay in library for weeks before exams, and write several drafts of an essay before they’ve reached something close to acceptable. I had never seen such discipline in academics until I was a student at UCT. The students here know that they are privileged to be studying at such a fantastic school, but they also worked ceaselessly to get themselves to this point.

With a student community that is 10 times the size of Gettysburg, I have learned how to be engaged in a class of 300 people. I have also come to accept that I need to work even harder and faster than many of my peers in higher-level courses for my major, because they know the political structure of South Africa and have the constitution memorized, and I just began learning these things that have been engrained in their education since primary school. I think that one of the most important things I’ve learned from studying abroad is that being a small fish in a big pond is daunting, but pushing yourself to be a better student, to work harder than you ever have in you life, teaches you a lot about yourself.

The majority of students at UCT were in the top 5% of their classes in high school and know the importance of their education. Learning to balance school being difficult, along with the time management in a city where there are always countless things to do has been one of the greatest challenges I have faced here. And accepting the fact that my academic comfort zone doesn’t exist at UCT like it does at Gettysburg has been frustrating. One of the greatest differences from school in America versus school in South Africa is that here, they don’t inflate grades or egos. Students in this education system earn the grades they deserve, and they don’t get a participation medal or a job well done every time they receive a good mark. This is the reality of school in Cape Town. People here are smart because they utilize class time to learn, and they absorb they information they learn when researching and writing assignments or exams. At UCT, students appreciate their education because they know that it is the key to their future success, and no one is going to hand them opportunity. 

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Claire Quinn

<p>My name is Claire. I am a thrill seeking millennial that is out to experience all the world has to offer. This blog will chronicle the greatest adventure of my life so far, a semester in Cape Town, South Africa. I have no idea what to expect, but my love for traveling and trying new things, as well as learning from the people around me has pushed me off the beaten path, and onto something completely new. Here&#39;s to the next six months of my life, I hope every moment is as unpredictable as I am.</p>

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