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Stellenbosch University (SU), one of Africa’s highest-ranked universities, attracts some attention on the world stage. This, along with the fact that Stellenbosch is known as a vibrant student town in an idyllic region of the Winelands, catches the eye of many international students from around Africa and, indeed, the world. One has to wonder, what is our own SU like for people who experience it thousands of kilometres from home? How different does campus seem when it carries an air of otherness?

Many international students come to SU for the award-winning faculties.

“I’ve always heard it has a really good Engineering faculty,” Nourelhouda Raddadi, first-year BEng student from Tunisia, commented.

The university’s reputation certainly precedes it, and most international students cite SU’s academic merit as their reason for coming to South Africa. There are so many places to choose from when looking past high school, but few universities can boast of SU’s facilities. “The education is there (in Zimbabwe), but the infrastructure here is better,” according to Londile Mlilo, first-year BEng (Civil Engineering) student. When the tables are turned though, and prospective students are looking for a home after choosing South Africa as their destination, SU’s campus excels at tipping the scales.

Sunny Kim, first-year BSc (Human Life Sciences) student from Namibia tells of her visit to Stellenbosch last year: “I just fell in love with it. Like, how beautiful it [is], the scenery […] the mood, and the atmosphere as well.” Usually, either the open campus, the student life, or a combination of both swayed the students towards the Maties life.

Cicka Nwagboso, BEng (Mechatronics) student, said that SU alumni “described the campus as integrated with the city and everything being within walking distance,” which appealed to her.

Crossing country borders with no return ticket is certainly a bumpy ride, and South Africa has its ways of making it even more interesting. Many SU staples, from the multiculturality to “klein Saturdag,” were pleasant surprises to the new Maties.

The residence culture is also a shock to many students from further away. Mayamiko Mwale, BEng student from Zimbabwe, admitted that he “thought it would just be, like, a building where you just sleep, but there are competitions and events, and that was unexpected.”

As for Stellenbosch, the small things threw international students for a loop. “These people don’t wear shoes,” according to Bokang Rampa, a first-year student from Lesotho. “Time doesn’t exist here, but I feel like it’s more of a student thing.”

Many also express how racial diversity and how much there is to learn from other cultures is something that they did not expect. The plethora of languages all around campus was also something many people had to grow accustomed to.

Nwagboso also mentioned minute details like, “the fact that there are no street vendors really threw [me] for a loop.” Bigger differences, like language barriers and weather, are easy to prepare for and are thus well thought out and processed before international students arrive in town. The tiny blessings (or curses) always leave people the most surprised, whether they move, immigrate, or come for studies.

Though, South African life has not been all sunshine and rainbows for the visa-holders among us. Many students feel they have been on higher alert regarding their safety since arriving. “I think the worst was not researching and preparing for [the higher crime rate] in advance,” said Raddadi. And, of course, load shedding added yet another change in routine to get used to.

“I didn’t expect loadshedding to affect my everyday life so much. I have to plan my day according to the load-shedding schedule […] and that is definitely the worst thing [about South Africa],” admitted Kim.

While most international students only go home twice or four times a year, many say that they would recommend studying abroad to anyone. Apart from some minor superficial hurdles, and cost barriers, the biggest caveat is that homesickness can sometimes add to the overwhelming nature of university life.

The experience SU offers to every student is unique. Some, though, are a little more unique than others. While the air of otherness may sometimes add to the uncertainty and emotionality of pursuing a degree, it also adds to the thrill of the leap between high school and university lifestyle. While SU might have seemed foreign and far-off to this fervent group of students just a few years ago, they also call it home now. Campus culture, as impactful, bombastic, and electric as it is, is ours to share, and it ought to be shared as far and wide as we can muster.

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