Important lesson learned abroad in South Africa

Studying abroad can prove to be rewarding, but keep in mind that assumptions and stereotypes should be avoided when exploring another culture.

Studying abroad offers a lot more in return than just a few college credits and some time spent in a different country. It is an experience that will change the way you perceive different cultural mores.


This past summer, I was given the remarkable opportunity to work as a foreign correspondent while traveling through South Africa for an entire month.

Upon hearing I was accepted into the School of Communications and Theater’s new study away program in Johannesburg, South Africa, the first thing my roommate said was, “You’re going to be riding elephants!”

Many Americans imagine South Africa as an underdeveloped and underprivileged society, when in reality it has many of the luxuries U.S. citizens enjoy like the Internet, fast-food restaurants, telephones, grocery stores, washing machines, banks and television. There are absolutely no wild animals roaming the busy streets.

Although the majority of the world believes discrimination has been eliminated in South Africa, I found that the struggle of unification still persists. While South Africa has come a long way since the dismantling of apartheid in 1990, racism and bigotry between white Africans and black Africans is still extremely prevalent. Racism and segregation have not dissolved despite being illegal in the country– just like in America.

Living in South Africa for a month was nothing I expected it to be. I quickly realized that most of my preconceived notions of the country, and the people living in it, weren’t accurate at all.

I lived and breathed post-apartheid life, while seeing firsthand interactions of white South Africans treating black South Africans as lower class citizens. I also saw how blacks stuck in former black townships, struggle to overcome severe poverty issues.

You can’t fully understand a culture unless you live in it. The people I met and the things I learned by immersing myself in the South African way of life could never be understood by reading a book or watching a movie.

Assumptions in everyday life, although sometimes inevitable, should be avoided. Stereotyping seems second nature to college students who often categorize students around campus into groups–the preps, geeks, goths, stoners and meatheads–to name a few.

While in South Africa, a few of the students in the program sat down for lunch and shared their first impressions of each other. I was first thought of as a “preppy, blonde bimbo” until, of course, everyone got to know me beyond my physical appearance.

It was shocking to see how others portrayed me before I even verbally expressed myself, and it made me realize that preconceived notions can be very ignorant.

Everyone, if given the opportunity, should study abroad at some point during college. The experience I had has opened up my mind to new people, situations and views of not only South African culture, but also my everyday surroundings.

College students, especially freshmen, must be considerate of others’ opinions and cultures, and should become knowledgeable of different places outside of their comfort zone. They’ll be surprised – I know I was – at how they’ll grow as individuals.

Lauren Hertzler can be reached at

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