Rachel Mow ’17 (Botswana)

Rachel with some of her homestay family.
Rachel with some of her homestay family.

Major: Chemistry.
Program/Semester: CIEE in Botswana, Spring 2016.

Why did you study abroad?

My parents met while spending a year abroad in Japan and growing up I always thought that studying abroad was part of my future. For a while I thought that I would not be able to go abroad because Mudd has so many requirements, and I was excited when I discovered that going abroad was very possible. For me studying abroad seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. Being able to spend nearly 5 months in another country, living with a host family, taking classes, and traveling around the area would be nearly impossible outside of a study abroad experience. I think that it is so important to gain as many experiences as possible and have our eyes opened to the rest of the world before we get too comfortable and settled down.

Tell us about your program

I did a semester in Botswana through the CIEE Arts and Sciences program. I took classes at the University of Botswana alongside the local students, as well as a Setswana language and culture practicum through CIEE. There were fourteen students in my program, although most of the students studied Public Health, where they took a couple Public Health classes through CIEE and worked at clinics every week. The program also had several excursions planned for us, including an incredible safari at the end of the semester where we camped in Chobe National Park and got to see tons of animals. The program was a good combination of being immersed in the university and culture, but also having a tight group of American friends. The program itself was not always well organized and at times it was frustrating, but I think learning to deal with those frustrations was a valuable part of the experience.

Describe a typical day

For the first half of the semester, I would wake up around 6:30am so my host dad could take me to school on his way to work. Once I got to school I would go for a run beside a wildlife reserve right next to campus before going to class. About halfway through the semester, my dad quit his job, so I started running from home before taking the combi to school. Taking the combi typically took me about an hour because I had to take one combi to the bus station and then take a taxi from there to school. Generally I would stay at school until around 5 pm, either in class all day or in the computer lab getting work done because I did not have internet at my homestay. Some days I would take the combi home with one of my friends who lived next to me. Going through the bus station twice every day was not always pleasant because it was crowded and I was one of few white people that went through station so I got a lot of unwanted attention. That said, the bus station was an experience by itself and I am very glad that I became so comfortable navigating it. Once I got home, I would eat dinner with my family- sometimes I would help cook- while we watched the news and South African soap operas on TV. After dinner I would play with my little sister Peo, watch TV with my parents, watch movies with my sister Nelly who is around my age, or retreat to my room to study.

What were your courses like?

The courses were a lot different from those at Mudd. I took six classes as well as inorganic chemistry lab. I took the University of Botswana version of Inorganic chemistry as my only STEM class and it was so different from any chemistry class I have taken. The professors made slides and note packets and then would essentially just lecture straight off the notes. Occasionally they would write something on the board, but it was nothing like at Mudd where by the end of the lecture the entire room is covered with equations. The rest of my classes were humanities and for the most part were very boring. In class, I felt like I was not learning anything, but the tests were typically difficult and different from what was covered in class. The grading scale was also different; at UB above 80% is an A and you can expect to never get above a 90% on anything. I got several papers and tests back that said “Excellent!” or had no markings to tell me what I did wrong, yet I would still get an 80%. It could just be the classes that I chose to take, but I found the courses to be frustrating a lot of the time because I did not feel intellectually challenged yet I still was not getting good grades. However, what I didn’t learn in class was made up for how much I learned by being immersed in such a different culture. I think studying abroad is about the experience more than it is about the coursework. It also made me appreciate Mudd so much more because we truly are getting an incredible education there.

Where did you live?

I lived in a homestay about an hour off campus on the outskirts of Gaborone. I had a host mom and a host dad (although I was the only homestay student with a host dad- everyone else had single moms) and a 23 year old sister. My parents’ eight year old granddaughter, Peo, also lived with us and by the end of the semester, their five year old granddaughter, Ludo, was also living with us. I considered Peo and Ludo to be my sisters even though they technically were the daughters of two of my older sisters that did not live with us. We lived in a neighborhood called Block 9, which was a pretty nice and safe place to live. Our house was one story with three bedrooms and a kitchen/living room. It generally had all of the comforts that I was accustomed to, although I did have to take baths the entire semester and there was no air conditioning so it was really hot a lot of the time.

What challenges did you experience?

I faced a lot of challenges which I think made the experience more valuable, even if it was tough at the time.

One of the biggest challenges was being so visible. There are not a lot of white people in Botswana, and the white people that do live there are generally wealthy and have their communities separate from the rest of the population. Because I am not rich and was determined to get a genuine Botswana experience, I frequently ended up in places where white people (or “lekgoa” in Setswana) are not expected, such as the bus station. Because I stood out so much I frequently got unwanted attention which was more irritating than threatening. People also had different reactions to lekgoa; a lot of men wanted to marry me and many women were kind of hostile because the men gave me so much attention. It can be exhausting standing out so much, but it also is interesting to know what it feels like to be a minority.

Another challenge was the different diet. The food in Botswana is delicious, but it is not exactly healthy and there is not a lot of variety. I was vegetarian before I went abroad but I had to start eating meat because meat is such an important part of the diet in Botswana. A typical meal was a mountain of carbs (rice, pap, dumplings, pasta) which a couple pieces of chicken (frequently fried) and a tiny bit of salad (butternut squash, coleslaw, morogo, chakalaka salad). Most of the students in my program gained weight during the semester, and I know most of us missed a lot of food from home. That said it was fun to try really different foods, such as fried caterpillar, liver, intestines, goat meat, etc. It also taught me to be more adaptable and to appreciate all of the great foods that we have easy access to here in the States.

Of course there were other challenges as well, most of which because I am used to a certain way of life that is relatively luxurious. It is tough to go from being middle class in a first world country and attending an amazing college to living in a developing country where the standard of living is lower. For example, I did not have internet at my house for most of the semester and the Wi-Fi at school barely worked. I did not know how dependent I was on internet access until I no longer had it. I am glad that I was forced out of my comfort zone though and had to unplug for a few months because I think I experienced much more than I would have if I could have scrolled through Facebook every time I got bored or uncomfortable.

What did you enjoy the most about your time abroad?

I got to travel a lot while abroad. The exchange rates are in our favor, especially in South Africa so travelling was relatively cheap. During our mid semester break I went to Namibia, Victoria Falls in Zambia, and to the Okovango Delta in northern Botswana. I also went to South Africa a couple times. At the end of the semester, I went to Cape Town with a friend but she had to leave early so I spent a couple days there alone. This was my first time solo traveling and I really enjoyed it. My program also organized a safari in Chobe National Park, where we got to camp in the bush and see tons of animals. It is pretty amazing to be able to say that I have been charged by elephants, was a couple feet from a pride of lions, have seen countless giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, monkeys, impala, and that I now strongly dislike baboons. I also think that going abroad helped me grow exponentially as a person. Spending a semester somewhere so incredibly different from home forced me to define myself differently and to adopt new habits and routines. The way that I think about things has changed and I feel much more independent and comfortable with myself.

Now that you’re back, what do you wish you would have done, but didn’t?

I wish I had tried harder to make friends with the local students. It is difficult to force yourself into a social life that is not at all what you are used to, and I think I fell back too much on the other Americans in my program. By the end of the semester, I was good friends with a few chemistry students and my host sister and one of her friends, but it took several months to get to that point.

What advice do you have for STEM majors and study abroad?

Don’t expect it to be like Mudd. STEM classes will be completely different, probably frustrating at times, and it is important to go into it open minded. Remember, you are there for the experience and if the classes aren’t as high caliber as Mudd that is okay.

Audrey Lawrence ’12 (South Africa)

Major: Computer Science
Program/Semester:   University of Cape Town, Spring 2011

Why did you study abroad?

To explore and experience a new culture. First, I wanted a country that spoke English. I also did not want to go to Europe, for I had taken trips there previously and Europe is relatively easy to travel to for future trips. I narrowed my choices town to South Africa and Australia, but in the end chose South Africa. Due to its history and current problems, South Africa seemed to be the choice for a more unique experience.

What were your courses like?

I took only courses in the humanities that were related in some way to South Africa: Southern African History, African History, African Traditional Religion, Afrikaans (the language), and a course on contemporary issues in South Africa. The courses were just as, if not more, challenging that humanities classes in Claremont, but this may have been due to their different structure. Most classes had no set reading or work other than large research papers, due mostly at the end of the course, and a final exam. Thus, students had to use self-discipline to not wait until the last minute to start reading or researching.

Where did you live?

I lived in an apartment very close to campus with two other American students. Most students in both my program and others, however, lived in large houses with Americans and Europeans.

What did you do for fun?

Traveled, hiked, went to the beach, clubbed, ate amazing Indian food, explored.

What challenges did you experience?

The program staff was fairly new and were still working some things out. The staff recommended we don’t travel alone at night so it was frustrating not being able to explore the city at night by yourself. Though we were close to campus, you needed transportation to visit other areas of the city and calling a cab was both tedious and costly.

Another challenge is seeing how much further the country still needs to go. South Africa has one of the world’s highest Gini indices, and the connection of this inequality to race is clear. Although great strides have been made since the end of apartheid, so much still needs to be done.

What were some memorable highlights from your time abroad?

  • A 10 day camping trip over spring break through Botswana to Victoria Falls, where we explored both the park on the Zambia side and the Zimbabwe side.
  • Sea kayaking in the beautiful seaside town of Hermanus.
  • Spending Sunday evenings at beach clubs along Camps Bay, location of some of the prettiest beaches I’ve ever seen. The people, the music (we saw some live performances by South Africa’s favorite group Goldfish here) and the views were amazing.

What advice do you have for Mudders interested in studying abroad?

Deciding to study abroad in South Africa, especially leading up to the World Cup, was such a great decision! Even without the World Cup, the nation is beautiful and interesting to spend time in.