South African classes shape student outlooks

This story is the second in a series about the experiences of Marquette students studying abroad in South Africa.

They have been away from Milwaukee for about one month and already the 10 Marquette students have experienced a cultural immersion through their learning experiences in Cape Town, South Africa.

While living in the Observatory neighborhood and attending classes at the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre and the University of Western Cape, the students have encountered native students that have broadened their cultural knowledge.

"They are helping us to better understand their culture and values in South Africa, which in turn motivates me to look at my culture and values," said Kristen Wick, a College of Nursing senior. "I couldn't think of a better way to learn."

Wick and her fellow Marquette classmates are enrolled in four classes specifically designed for this study-abroad trip.

The director of the Peace Centre is teaching a theology course in forgiveness, reconciliation and justice to explore how South Africa is healing from apartheid.

Another Peace Centre course, Leadership in Grassroots Organizations, focuses on the various causes of social issues, such as poverty.

The University of Western Cape offers Ethical Leadership to motivate students to become leaders.

The fourth class is an elective. For example, Leah Huff, a College of Communication junior, chose to take African Philosophy.

"The course is showing me that Europeans really didn't give Africans enough credit and the white settlers thought Africans were dumb or had no religion or philosophy based solely on skin color," she said.

In addition to classes, students went on a retreat with John de Gruchy, a professor at the University of Cape Town and a leader in the struggle against apartheid.

"He gave me a new way of looking at what God's will for my life and the lives of everyone truly is," said Emily Iverson, a junior in the College of Communication. "It was rejuvenating and refreshing to see through a new pair of glasses this world where God is everywhere."

The students said the South African education system has similarities and differences with higher education in the United States.

The University of Western Cape is on a semester system, but its summer break stretches between December and February, Huff said.

South Africans attend 12 years of school before enrolling in a three-year higher education program.

"It is not as strict here to go straight to college after high school," Iverson said. "Many students here are more volunteer-oriented and work hard in whatever their goal is."

The teaching style is more informal and laidback, the students said, emphasizing interaction and discussion over note-taking.

Two-hour classes are held once a week and usually during the day, though several Marquette students have afternoon classes.

However, as with every system, the organization has some setbacks. Huff said she spent seven hours registering for her classes. Wick said she had difficulties in finding her classes on the first day because the campus was poorly labeled and lacked maps.

Despite these concerns, all the students say they enjoy the welcoming and diverse student body, in which they are a minority.

"You don't see anyone in the union with their nose stuck in a book," Iverson said. "People actually 'be' here and not just 'do.'"

"The South African students have been nothing but kind and genuine," said Frank McAlpin, a College of Arts & Sciences junior. "Most everyone smiles at you and greets you when you come into a room, which really makes you feel comfortable."

"I've noticed that kids sometimes look at me, like they are trying to figure me out," Huff said. "I figure they are thinking, 'Who is this white girl? Where is she from?' But I haven't had one bad experience with anyone."

Wick said such experiences lead to ever-changing and maybe clearer perceptions.

"I don't see South African students as being any different then myself," she said. "We may have a different skin color and be from different parts of the world but under those superficial characteristics, we have more things in common than different."

All interviews with the students were conducted via e-mail.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Mar. 3 2005.