Cailin Plunkett arrives in South Africa

When I first stepped through the airport doors in Nelspruit, South Africa to find my host family on the other side, I wasn’t sure what the coming weeks would bring. I was excited to see my host, Daua, again and to experience life in another country. Two weeks later, I’ve had a variety of experiences, full of highs and lows, and I am excited for the next month here.

There were several days before the new term began, so I had time to adjust before being thrown into school as well. We spent the days preparing for the new term and visiting local attractions. My host family is actually Mozambican, and my exchange normally boards at the school. While I’m visiting, they’ve rented a condo in Nelspruit so that I can stay in a house rather than in the dorms. My host mother wanted this for her daughter when she came to Athenian, so she arranged it for me as well. That is one of the kindest things anyone has done for me.

School began a week ago and what hit me first was the complete contrast to Athenian. The day began with chapel, during which the students pray, sing, and listen to short sermons together. As someone who is not religious, this immediately made me draw a comparison to Athenian as I am not used to the conformity of belief here. The school accepts those of all faiths, but all students partake in the Methodist practices of the school.

As the day went on, the differences between Penryn and Athenian kept adding up. The teachers here are very strict; class begins with the students standing until the teacher permits them to sit down. Grades, or marks, are very important here, and the highest scorers (and some of the lower ones) have their marks read aloud to the class. The top ten students in each grade have their grade averages on display. The open nature about scores here is scary to me, as I can only imagine the competition and sadness if this system were implemented at Athenian.

The way the classes are taught is also very different. Some classes consist solely of the students copying notes off a PowerPoint in complete silence. Classes, in general, are taught with the students learning passively. You gain a lot of knowledge, but it is told to you rather than discovered by you. Drama class is the highlight of my day as it reminds me the most of a class that could be taught at Athenian. The class is a much needed time of familiarity during the world of differences outside. The teacher is the friendliest I’ve met so far, and does not yell at us for sitting on top of the desks or for making noise. It’s the class in which I can be most like myself.

Although I seem to be writing about the school kind of negatively, I’ve actually had an amazing time so far. The students are hilarious and are all welcoming and willing to get to know me. Most of Daua’s friends are Mozambican as well, which has made conversations difficult at times because they speak Portuguese in Mozambique. Sometimes they’ll go back and forth in Portuguese for a while before someone says “guys, English!” and they’ll switch to English for my benefit. Their effort to speak English around me is much appreciated, and they are all super nice and try to make sure I’m included in conversations.

My first few days were spent fielding questions about the US. Everyone wants to know about life in America. Do the cheerleaders wear their uniforms to school all day? Are the popular cliques outright cruel to others. Basically, if everything they’ve heard is true. (Turns out, “the movies are all lies!”). Their questions were legitimate, as they have an outside perspective of life here that they’ve gained through our media. After realizing most of what they’d been told wasn’t true, people liked to turn the question on me. What did you think Africa was like before you got here? Did you think we rode giraffes to school? Thankfully, I’ve grown up knowing that’s obviously not true. But their questions made me remember the bubble that so many people in the US do live in, oblivious to the reality of life in other countries and only knowing stereotypes they’re shown in the media.

So far, exchange has been interesting. There have been times I’ve wondered why I ever wanted to go on exchange, times I’ve laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair, and everything in between. To anyone wanting to apply for exchange, know in advance that it can be hard. You will question yourself and your decisions. There will be situations in which you don’t know how to react, as what is offensive to one person is a normal comment to another. But you will also meet amazing people and have incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Exchange is something unlike any other. It’s something you have one chance to do, to go halfway around the globe at fifteen and be thrown into a whole new world.

Whether my next month here is wonderful or horrible, I know that I won’t regret it.