There is no right or wrong way to study abroad. For some, it’s a semester for letting loose and exploring a part of the world with their closest friends. For others, it’s a time to push every boundary of their comfort zone and become fully immersed in a different culture. For all, however, studying abroad will be a time of self-discovery and exploration.
Looking back on the time I’ve spent in Gaborone, Botswana, it is hard to understand and digest my experience. The incredible highs and lows the past three months are impossible to explain. The highlights, however, have without a doubt been my host family and my internship at Mokolodi. Coming home every day, exhausted and in need of a rest, my house in Phase 2 has truly become my home. When I walk through the door to the smell of a home cooked meal, my whole body relaxes. Even better are the days I get to cook dinner for the family as it serves as a therapeutic and comforting part of my day. My sister had a baby in February. As a result, our evenings are spent in her room, chatting or watching tv until bedtime. When the power is out, which happens regularly, we sit by candlelight and relax, sometimes saying nothing at all. Having such a warm and loving family has provided me with a stronger support system than I could have hoped for, and for that I am extremely grateful.
I cannot pretend that my transition into home life here was smooth and easy going. Going to university in the States means that I’ve been living my own, independent life for a few years now. My parents have viewed and treated me as an adult for a long time, and I therefore have experienced a large amount of freedom. Here, that type of freedom was taken away. Suddenly, I had to adjust to curfews, house rules and chores that I had not dealt with since high school. This transition was very hard. Nevertheless, once I grew accustomed to the cultural differences and understood the expectations of my family, I could not have been happier. The other challenge was diet. I have been a vegetarian for three years. Upon my arrival, I realized how hard it would be to sustain my vegetarian life style as meat is such a staple. I started eating meat the first week, and it took over a month for me to get used to it again.
As for my internship at Mokolodi, I couldn’t have been luckier in securing a position from the start. Three days a week, and sometimes four, I get to spend my afternoon in the middle of a nature reserve, surrounded by the incredible southern African wildlife. I grew up on a farm 45 minutes outside of Baltimore City and go to Middlebury College. In both cases, the closest neighbors are fellow farmers and cows. Getting out of Gaborone and into nature has therefore been essential to keeping my sanity here. When I get to work, I jump in the back of a truck and head into the park for the days work. Some days are spent clearing bush, while the reptile park and feeding birds or monkeys occupy other days.
The hardest part of my study abroad experience has definitely been my time at UB. For the first time in my life, I am a minority in the education system. In every class, I am the legowa, and feel on constant display. I either feel resented and judged as a pretentious exchange student, or I feel the weight of expectation pressed upon me by both my peers and professors. Never before have I felt uncomfortable participating in a classroom, nor have I felt that my opinions are invalid or unappreciated. The first week of classes, I raised my hand and participated in each class. However, the murmurs and giggles that rippled through the room each time I spoke have discouraged me to raise my hand at all. Of course, a certain amount of my hesitance is self-inflicted insecurity. However, it is an educational experience I have never had before, and, as a white girl from America, has been essential.
There are easier places to study abroad, and experiences that would no doubt have been more “fun” both socially and educationally. However, as an overall experience, deciding to study in Botswana for my semester abroad was the best decision for me. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had here and the wonderful people I have met.