Thu Trang Tran is an Ambassador who studied abroad in South Africa
Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you decide on this program?
I chose to study abroad because I have been encouraged to do so since my first day at CSB/SJU. Everyone was talking about how cool our study abroad programs are: we have 17 semester-long programs, short-term trips, service opportunities, etc. In addition, as an international student at CSB/SJU, I wanted to challenge my cultural flexibility, change the pace of life and learn new things.
South Africa was particularly a good fit for me for many reasons. First and foremost, I was fascinated by the intriguing facts I found about this country, about apartheid and democracy, poverty and a thriving economy, etc. Second, the South Africa program differentiates itself from the rest by the service component. Since volunteerism and social justice have been a big part of my life, I felt drawn toward spending time (2 days/week for semester) to learn about the people, their challenges, and to lend a hand. Last but not least, I hoped to break the stereotypes and negative connotations attached to South Africa. I wanted to find the beauty and the positives of South Africans' way of life.
Briefly describe a specific cultural experience you had on your trip that made a lasting impression.
One of my most memorable cultural experiences in South Africa was in Missionvale Care Center where I volunteered twice a week. Missionvale is one of the larger townships in Port Elizabeth, which has over 100,000 people living in extremely challenging conditions. At the beginning of the trip, we had an opportunity to visit community members' homes, and all of us struggled to process the experience. People live in shacks, with cardboard walls, soaking wet carpets, bucket toilets, and a minimum amount of household furniture. However, it was such an inspirational experience for us to hear them sing before getting meals from the soup kitchen of Missionvale. They sang beautifully in harmony, with smiles on their faces, and they praised God for what they had, even though they had so little. The songs they sang touched me in an indescribable way. They taught me about optimism, about the vibrant culture of South Africans and about humanity.
Describe your overall study abroad experience.
Study abroad in South Africa was not a vacation; in contrast, it was a learning experience that got me out of my comfort zone many times. Academically, the program was challenging, as we had several reading materials, papers and tests for each class. It was a stretch trying to finish homework while engaging in other activities. However, the knowledge we obtained through class work was extremely helpful in processing our experience.
The service component of the trip was unforgettable. We all grew attached to the people and children at our service sites. It is amazing how much these people touched our lives in the four months we were there. The experience really humbled myself and my work as a volunteer.
Beside school and service, we got to do some really fun excursions, some short and some longer ones. Each trip added a new nuance to the picture of South Africa. We got to see the countryside in Frontier, the big city life in Cape Town, JoBurg, and the incredible wild life in Schotia, etc. I felt safe most of the time, since we were beware that we were in strange environments and became more considerate.
Overall, the trip was an amazing experience. I loved it not only because I learned a great deal about myself and South Africa, but also because I was able to connect with amazing people in the country and my group from Saint Ben's/Saint John's.
Based on your experiences abroad, what are some of the benefits of spending a semester abroad? How has studying abroad contributed to your personal, academic, and professional development?
I came back from my study abroad trip with new perspectives. In terms of personal development, I have gotten so much better in connecting with people. My interpersonal and communication skills were significantly improved thanks to my interactions with South Africans and my friends from CSB/SJU. I also learned so much about myself, my purpose, and my goals in life.
In addition, the trip allowed me to expand my interests in social studies such as music, literature, politics, etc. I was able to not only learn about South Africa's context but also develop curiosity about these topics at home-Vietnam and in the U.S. This has helped shape my critical thinking, and make me more educated about the societies I'm living in.
Last but not least, professionally, I have brushed up on many skills in presentation, communication, teamwork, leadership, time management, etc. I was also able to learn about NGOs in a developing country and I am considering this option as my ultimate career goal.
What advice can you offer for CSB/SJU students who are considering or planning to study abroad?
One might find a million reasons not to go, but once you are abroad, you can easily come up with a million plus one reasons why you are having such an amazing experience that money cannot buy. I understand funding might be the biggest reason why people hesitate, but you can overcome this by planning a head with summer jobs, on-campus employments, study abroad grants and scholarships, etc. Reach out to resources on campus - the Study Abroad Office is a great start!
While abroad, think positively. Expect to do new things, meet new people, be in situations that get you out of your comfort zone. The people who got the best out of any trip are the people who kept it together, had a good attitude, and dealt with the situation instead of complaining.
Make connections and reflect on your relationships with people around you. You are not a tourist. You know more than a tourist knows: you will see the best sides, the worst sides, and the normal daily sides of a country. You will bond with people, and be mindful about those relationships. Treasure them when you can.
Last but not least, remember to reach out to your resources - you director, friends on the trip, family, the Study Abroad Office, the Ambassadors, etc. These people will be there for you, and they are equally excited to keep you company in your experience, on good days and on bad days.
Do you have questions about studying abroad in South Africa? Email Trang at t1tran@csbsju