"Studying" Abroad

Gwen Marquis
March 26, 2018
Buildings of Bo Kaap

There’s a fairly prevalent stereotype of the study abroad student; you’ve almost certainly encountered it before. The entrepreneuring college junior or senior packs their bags and, amidst Snapchats of boarding passes and their passport, sets off for their semester abroad. The next months are a flurry of Instagrams, Facebook albums, and video calls home, and when the student eventually returns, they undoubtedly can’t stop talking about their time abroad. I can’t say I haven’t done any of these things, and I’m sure I’ll talk about my time abroad frequently once I return to the U.S. However, the one aspect of this storyline that I don’t agree with is that of the “studying” abroad joke: the idea that while away from your home university, classes are laughably easy time-fillers really just meant to vary your schedule in between eating amazing food and picture-perfect weekend adventures.

Let me start explaining this by asserting one thing that everyone in my program has agreed with thus far: UCT is no joke. Of the three classes I’m taking, all are transferring directly back to my home university into requirements I need for my degree. And of those three classes, none of them will be an easy A. I’m starting to think that easy A’s don’t exist at UCT. This can sound scary at first, but on the plus side, expectations are made very clear from the start here and there is a lot of built-in class time for you to really master topics you might have difficulty with at first.

The academic structure is different in some key ways from American universities:

  1. Most undergrad degrees in South Africa take three years to complete, and courses are weighted differently. For example: at home, I typically take five classes a semester and come in at fifteen credits. I’m also taking fifteen credits here, but only three classes. How? Courses at UCT are either at the 1000, 2000, or 3000 level, and are granted more credits based on their difficulty.
  2. The final exam is also often worth at least 50% of your course grade, and being able to sit for it isn’t a given.
  3. In order to take the final exam, you must meet the requirements for “DP”, which means “duly performed”. Getting DP basically means that you’ve met participation and turn-in deadlines for your course. So in order to take the final exam, you have to “earn” the right.

Freaked out? Don’t be. There are some big differences from American universities that work to your favor here, too. Classes meet more often at UCT than I’m used to, and vary in format, which ends up making you remember more and (I believe) truly engage with what you’re learning. For example, I’ve taken language classes both at my home university and currently at UCT. At home, my language class met four times a week, and every class period was a lecture with some dialogue or question-taking. At UCT, I go to my language class every day: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are basic language, and Tuesday and Thursday are basic reading. Additionally, I have a conversation class and language lab each week, reaching a total of seven contact periods (yes, seems like a lot, but you really start getting a hang of everything!).

Aside from language classes, one other big difference worth noting when it comes to academics is the tutorial. This is a session once a week for any undergrad class that you sign up for, much like a lab for a science course. Tutorials (or “tuts”) are presided over by grad students, and can range from anything from reading review to in-depth debates or project-specific preparation. IES Abroad was instrumental in both giving me a good base foundation of information on the South African academic system, but going to classes and talking to other students has only improved upon this.

I’ll leave you with this: the more you challenge yourself during your time abroad, be it socially or academically, the more you will accomplish and grow. I’ve made a fool of myself, but I’ve also already done things I didn’t think I had the capability to do-- from debating a complex case study on national security in front of my senior-level class, to expanding my somewhat-picky eating habits to try ostrich and sheep’s tongue. Find what you’re comfortable with, and go one step further.


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Gwen Marquis

<p class="MsoBodyText" style="margin-top:2.35pt; margin-right:10.3pt; margin-bottom:.0001pt; margin-left:5.0pt">Hi all! My name is Gwen, and I’m a junior majoring in Political Science and Anthropology with a concentration in Global Health at the University of Vermont. I love taking photos, being outside, and pretty much every dog I’ve ever met. I’ve never been to the Southern Hemisphere before and am looking forward to studying abroad in Cape Town and escaping New England mid-winter. This semester abroad, I look forward to traveling as much as possible and (hopefully) learning to cook for myself. Wish me luck!</p>

2018 Spring
Home University:
University of Vermont
Walpole, MA
Political Science
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