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NU In South Africa



Wrapping Up

We have one week remaining in South Africa, and only two more days of course work. The weather is transitioning from Summer to Autumn, and I’m wearing a sweater and jeans as I write this while sitting outside a café – an unthinkable prospect when we stepped off the plane in January into the blazing summer sun.

In one sense, I feel like I’ve finally started to acclimate to the idiosyncrasies of Stellenbosch culture. For instance, I know that flip flops are always preferable to shoes and bare feet are preferable to both (one of my classmates has been documenting this fact). I can recognize some spoken and written Afrikaans, my isiXhosa click consonants are getting better, and the South African accents are much more understandable to me than they used to be. I also have a good sense of the value of things without having to do an explicit conversion: 30º is hot but not unbearable, 19h00 is when it starts to get dark, R30 for a cappuccino is a little steep (even though that price would be a steal in the US), 20 kg is far too much for me to curl, and once your food hits 1500 kJ it’s moving out of snack territory and getting closer to a full meal.

Sometimes Afrikaans isn’t that hard to understand

In another sense, I’m still so very foreign. My American accent is impossible to hide, which at least helps people be patient with me when they ask a question and all I can give them is a blank stare in response. I cause a scene whenever I try to charge my phone, pulling out three separate adapters to convert the South African outlets into something my American electronics can handle. My lack of interest in (or knowledge of) rugby is mildly offensive, and elicits the same sorts of responses that I get in the US when I admit that I’m not a fan of [American] football.

Adapters for converting (from right to left)…
(1) The South African outlets to physically accept a standard Euro plug
(2) The Euro plug to physically accept the USA plug
(3) The South African 240V/50Hz electricity into the USA’s 110V/60Hz electricity

I’m going to miss this beautiful country and its beautiful people, with all the problems and pain and promise and hope they contain. Rather than sadness, though, there’s a peaceful feeling of resolution and closure that has settled on me as I close this chapter. I dreamed of this experience since my first month at Northwestern, and in less than 7 days I will have completed both the trip and my degree. Neither were what I expected, but given the chance to redo my choices I would still pick them in a heartbeat. Thank you to everyone who has made my journey over the past 5 years possible: my teachers, coworkers, mentors, friends, and family. It’s been unforgettable, and shaped me into a drastically better person ready to embrace whatever is next in store.

non scholæ sed vitæ discimus

Hout Bay

Although we have gotten busier with academics, there are some excursions that were organized for us as well. One of my favorites so far was Hout Bay. As a group we travelled to there with Jean Poluta, who had organized the first two weeks of our program. The day included a mildly rocky boat tour to seal island, where we got an up-close view of the cape fur seals that live in the harbor. Between the seals and the fishmeal factory in the area, the smells were less than spectacular, but the tastes were amazing. Our group went to Snoekie’s, a local classic, for lunch where we munched on some fresh fish n’ chips, and my clothes that were still damp from the boat tour got to dry out in the sunshine.  

We also got to meet with Prof Alan Morris, a retired professor from UCT, who gave us an informal lecture on race in South Africa. Although we had already been given a handful of lectures on this topic at Stellenbosch, Prof Morris’ background as a forensic anthropologist provided a new perspective. We talked about how culture and ethnicity can — but do not always — overlap, and we discussed Cape Town-specific cultural phenomena like the “Cape Flats smile”.

In Hout Bay, race is a particularly salient topic because of the communities and neighborhoods that are each still typically representative of a single racial group. This can make political questions, such as where to locate a new clinic, controversial and challenging for Hout Bay leadership.

Afterwards, our group had the opportunity to take a tour through Imizamo Yethu Township, an informal settlement in Hout Bay. We were guided by the local ANC representative, Kenny Tokwe, and we visited a variety of homes, schools, and community centers. The homes in the community varied: we saw some that were simple shacks, divided between a bedroom and an all purpose room that served as a kitchen, laundry room, and dining area. Other homes, while still small by American standards, had as many as six rooms, with fully functioning kitchen appliances, separate bedrooms for parents and children, and living rooms with childrens’ art projects framed on a bookshelf. These homes had been built as part of an effort by Niall Mellon, an Irish businessman who funded the construction of hundreds of homes in the area.


One of our last stops on the tour was to iKhaya le Themba, which translates to “Home of Hope”. It is a community center that provides programming, home-cooked meals, and a safe space for children who have experienced trauma to go after school until their parents are home from work. Getting to interact with some of the children at this and other community centers in the neighborhood was certainly a highlight of the tour, and I am so grateful to have gotten to see such an in-depth view of this community.

There are many beautiful things to see and do in Cape Town like climbing Table Mountain, going to the beach, or trying new foods; but having had a chance to explore a less typical tourist destination and spend the day interacting with people and hearing their stories brought a new level of depth to my time here that I hope to continue to find in our last two weeks.


When I left for South Africa in January, I didn’t expect my friends and family to hear much about the region except for what I shared with them. I certainly didn’t expect CNN to feature Cape Town on their front page mere days after we flew there from Johannesburg.

During our first two weeks in the northeastern corner of South Africa, we were vaguely aware of the massive drought affecting the country, but it was little more than an interesting piece of gossip. We heard that the animals in the nature preserve were struggling, and saw that many rivers had entirely dried up. All in all, it felt like a minor inconvenience and had little to no impact on our daily life. Upon landing in Cape Town, however, the crisis became very tangible. Public Service Announcements covered every wall and were repeated over the intercom at least every 15 minutes. Sinks in the restrooms had been shut off, replaced with waterless hand sanitizer.

Public service announcement at a hotel near the CPT airport

Once we arrived at Stellenbosch University that evening, our program coordinators stressed the importance of reducing water consumption on an individual basis. We were each instructed to use no more than 50 Liters per day, and told what that meant in practical terms such as number of toilet flushes, minutes seconds of showering, and bottles of drinking water.

Sand timers, distributed to help us limit our showers to 90 seconds or less

All focus was on “Day Zero”: the date when the municipal water supply would be shut off. After this point, the guidelines for restricting consumption to 50L per day (13 gallons, based on the honor system) would be replaced by strict limits of 25L per day (6.6 gallons). The daily rations would be obtained in plastic jugs from a government collection site under the supervision of police and military guards. The Day Zero estimate is updated every Monday, and at the time we arrived in late January, it was estimated at April 22. The next week, it was revised to April 12.

CNN (link) and other US news outlets (link, link) began to pay attention, since this would be the first time in modern history that a major city ran out of water. Not good. As noted by two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry, “drinking water is essential to a healthy lifestyle.” (source)

Water crisis notifications posted on the doors of each suite in our residence

At first, the situation appeared to be straightforward: there was no rain, and there hadn’t been any rain in a very long time, so the Western Cape had no more water. As we’ve been here for close to a month, though, I’ve begun to see more nuance. The water crisis is at the front of everyone’s minds, as you might expect, and no one is shy about opining on the matter. Some of these, such as Dr. Jo Barnes, one of our first guest lecturers at Stellenbosch, are experts in the field and have spent decades researching the environmental and socio-political factors that play into water shortages. Others, such as my waiter at lunch yesterday, have… less of a background. Many, however, seem to understand the crisis as at least as much of a political problem of mismanagement as a natural problem of rainfall shortages. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is little confidence in the provincial and national governments to handle the Day Zero distribution operations any more effectively than they have handled the previous 3 years of drought.

The front page of a local newspaper

While living under the constant specter of losing one of your most basic biological needs is unsettling, the reality is that the Northwestern students are safe. By even the most dire estimates, the water will last until we leave in late March. Even if Day Zero defied all predictions and arrived in the next month, Stellenbosch is far enough inland that its water reserves will last far longer than Cape Town. And if Stellenbosch itself dries up? We can fly home. That’s not the case for millions of people in our province. They will be here, and they will be affected. Aside from their immediate survival, their longer-term economic stability is in jeopardy as well: the economy of the province is based largely on tourism and wine exports, both of which will plummet if or when the taps turn off.

The Theewaterskloof Dam, the source of roughly half of Cape Town’s water (Source: NASA)

Day Zero estimates have shifted since we arrived, and were drastically moved back in the past two weeks as billions of gallons of water were released from agricultural use in the center of the country to flow toward reservoirs near the coast. Perhaps, as some skeptics say, it will never arrive at all. Let’s hope they’re right.

Estimates of Day Zero over time

Μηκέτι ὑδροπότει, ἀλλ’ οἴνῳ…

Orientation to South Africa

The first two weeks of our program were incredible, but also, at times, emotionally heavy.

Even in the first couple of days we jumped right in, as we quickly began to get exposure to the history of South Africa more in depth. We visited the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg, which gave us amazing insight into the “old” South Africa and how it continues to impact the current South Africa. It opened my eyes to the racial dynamics that have been at play in this country over the past century, and made me think critically about race in a new way, both here in South Africa and in the context of my experiences in the United States.

We visited the mining museum located within Gold Reef City, our home base for the initial part of our trip. We got a chance to learn about how the mining industry in South Africa impacted and interacted with the racial dynamics reinforced by Apartheid.

From here we visited Kruger for an unforgettable five days. I caught myself forgetting that we were in the real savannah, rather than a landscape that had been cultivated by people to just mimic what a savannah was “supposed” to look like; or that when we saw hyenas, bushbabies, and giraffes on game drives, they weren’t brought here from somewhere else, this was actually where they are meant to be. Our guides were warm and welcoming, and so excited to share Kruger with us. The lectures gave me a much better understanding of the environmental factors at play in the park, as well as controversial issues like elephant culling and rhino poaching. We had our first braai under the stars in the park, and got to try some South African specialties like biltong, malva pudding, and pap. Even though there were many early mornings (sometimes as early as 4am), Kruger was certainly one of the highlights of the trip.


Our first two weeks in South Africa were spent traveling the northeast corner of the country, with Johannesburg acting as a sort of home base. During that time, the “rainbow nation” was on full display. The diversity of thought, culture, language, wealth, priorities, wildlife, and landscape were, at many points, overwhelming. Of course, the United States also prides itself (or used to) on being a “melting pot”, but the contrasts feel less stark at home. In the USA there is a buffer between the millionaires and the impoverished, the urban and the rural, the obligate anglophones and the polyglots, the wild and the cultivated, the antiquated and the modern.

Not here. Here, the boundaries are sharp.

The border between a rural clinic and the neighborhood it serves

The boundaries are walls, fences, gates. The boundaries are barbed wire, armed guards, razor wire, infrared motion detectors, electric fences, shards of glass embedded in concrete. The desperately poor rest against one side while the opulently affluent sleep on the other. The lions and leopards pace their untamed domain, meters from children walking to school. The Mustangs and Impalas honk impatiently as livestock and antelopes block the road. Shacks with no electricity or running water nevertheless have satellite TV. Ancient caves house not only the oldest human fossils ever unearthed but also detailed plaques and paved flights of well-lit stairs. Medical doctors coordinate with traditional sangomas to address public health concerns. A single street flaunts billboards in 2, 3, or 4 separate languages.

The entrance to South Africa’s Constitutional Court, titled in each of the country’s 11 official languages

Upon arriving in the Western Cape province, where we’ll be spending the remainder of the quarter, these boundaries once again became noticeably blurrier. In a way, I already miss the bright collisions in the provinces of Gauteng, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo. At the same time, I certainly don’t miss the electric fences and razor wire.

metse e metle kantle

Settling in, but seeing new places

We have finally settled in at Stellenbosch for a few weeks, and we have begun to get into a routine. As someone studying Industrial Engineering at Northwestern, our classes have exposed me to a lot of new content, especially pertaining to global health and biomedical engineering. In addition to classes about technology, a large component of understanding healthcare in South Africa has included having a chance to better understand the context of the country and culture here. We have had some great lectures from professors at Stellenbosch that have added to our understanding of the legacy of Apartheid, racial dynamics, and contemporary political issues.

Outside the classroom, we have gotten to see and learn even more about these with our off-campus visits. Our weekend in Cape Town last week included tours of Robben Island, District 6, and Bo Kaap. On Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held for many years, we were given a tour around the museum by a former prisoner. It was jarring to hear his story firsthand, but also a unique experiences that I’m sure won’t be possible for the generations of visitors after us.

Our guides at District 6 and Bo Kaap were also people native to these neighborhoods respectively. Bo Kaap was very colorful, filled with tourists taking photos, historical homes, beautiful mosques, and spice shops while District 6 was empty by comparison, its historical infrastructure having been destroyed during Apartheid. Although these two areas were extreme opposites on the surface, what they have in common is that their people were proud to be from where they grew up, and both neighborhoods are facing a great deal of change. Gentrification is everywhere, and influxes of money have the power to alter who will be able to live in these neighborhoods in the near future. Having a chance to meet people from these places and see their homes through their eyes was a truly memorable experience.


When I began my undergraduate studies at Northwestern, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an engineer. What I did know was that I wanted to study global health.

Upon beginning school, I immediately declared my minor (a major in global health wasn’t offered back in those days) and planned out a 4-year course schedule that included a study abroad in South Africa. As is always the case, those plans had to be rewritten. In my 2nd year, I accepted an engineering co-op with Johnson & Johnson’s medical device division, which delayed my graduation plans by one year and interrupted the clean course sequences I had so meticulously arranged. The plan went through another major revision when I added a second engineering major my 3rd year, and yet another when I changed my mind and removed that double major during my 4th year.

Throughout each rewrite, as courses were added and replaced and flexed and moved, one thing remained unchanged: I was going to South Africa. I switched back and forth between whether it would be in my 4th year or my 5th year and whether it would be in the winter or in the spring, but South Africa was going to happen no matter what.

Now, in the very last quarter of my 5th year of undergrad, I’m finally going. I’ll pack my bags tonight (because why do it before the last minute?) and fly out tomorrow, landing 32 hours later and transforming into reality the dream I’ve dreamed for so long.

non progredi est regredi

Image from

Pre-Departure Post

Thinking about my upcoming trip to South Africa, I’m feeling unsure about what to expect. I have never been abroad for longer than two weeks, and I’ve never been to the African continent for any period of time. 


Of course, I tried doing some preliminary research: I read blog posts, news articles, and I tried my best to educate myself about South Africa as a country, or what our programming would look like, but I realize there’s only so much preparation I can do for how I will feel during this experience.


Luckily in my preparation, I was able to talk to some students who went to South Africa last year. I got recommendations for places to see and food to try, and their excitement for me made me feel less nervous about the upcoming three months of unknown. They gave me some tips for packing (which is much harder than I thought it would be!), and I’m hoping that I’ve found the right balance between being prepared and coming in under the 50lb weight limit for my checked bag.


From my research, two things that I am making sure to pay attention to going into this experience are the water crisis in Cape Town and the impact of the election in the ANC (African National Congress) in December. While I have had a chance to read a few articles about both, I am curious to see what both of these issues look like in real life.

“How was South Africa?”

As I reflect on this spring quarter and even my first blog post, it’s becoming clear that this experience did indeed change me in lasting ways. But I’m realizing that many of the specific ways I learned and grew go beyond what I predicted. I’ll spare you the laundry list of details and share a few ways I both did and didn’t expect to grow.

Here is a shot of an African penguin sanctuary. One of infinite examples of natural beauty.

I expected this program to reinforce my passion for protecting people’s health (it absolutely did), but I didn’t realize that it would bolster my feeling of adamancy when it comes to protecting nature from climate change and human abuse. For that I owe the everyday experience of South Africa’s absolutely vibrant biodiversity (in both flora AND fauna!), excursions to natural reserves, an unending series of surprise hikes, and the truly beautiful experience in Kruger National Park and the Drs. David and Cleo’s wisdom and examples of environmental research and advocacy.

This is one of my favorite pieces from an art exhibit by and about South African women called Being Her(e) which we saw in an old apartheid-era jail in Johannesburg. The artist overlapped an image of herself with an old image of her mother.

While I anticipated I would become a stronger advocate for non-dominant races and ethnicities (you bet it did), I didn’t anticipate becoming so much more passionate about women’s rights and feminism during my time in South Africa. For that, I owe a lot of thanks to the wonderful women I shared this experience with and their fearlessness and unending support for each other, to Professor Guows’ example of both career and personal excellence all while fighting tirelessly for other women yet retaining her sense of humor, and to the many resilient and passionate South African women who often work the hardest and receive the least credit.

Here are most of the program participants after hiking Cape Town’s Lion’s Head Mountain on our penultimate weekend in South Africa.

Finally, I expected to make great friends on this program, but I couldn’t have anticipated how much I’ve improved for knowing them. Through example, they taught me to be a more fearlessly and actively supportive and encouraging friend, to be free and exuberant with compliments. Through their friendships they unknowingly encouraged me to speak up more, to be a better judge of when to take breaks, to be adventurous and spontaneous while taking care of myself and others, to articulate my thoughts to convey logic but not at the expense of feeling. I could go on for paragraphs, but I promised to spare you the tedious specifics.

When people ask me, “How was South Africa?” I say it was incredible. Beyond that, I don’t know where to start without taking up hours of their time; I haven’t yet found a way to reduce what feel like a year’s worth of experiences this spring to a short summary or sound byte, and I couldn’t feel more fortunate to be in that position.

Saying Goodbye to South Africa — For Now

It is absolutely crazy to think about my time in South Africa — that it even happened at all. Three months passed so quickly, and I have so, so many fond memories in Stellenbosch, Cape Town, the Garden Route, the Kruger and Johannesburg.

Our last Northwestern-sponsored dinner at a vineyard in Stellenbosch

I’ve learned so much about being Asian American in a different racial context, about being female in a society that experiences one of the highest rates of violence against women, and about the promises and failures of a public health system that tries to offer free, comprehensive health care through an underfunded, overworked system.

I’ve experienced the most extravagant South African wines, foods and landscapes. I’ve hiked Table Mountain three times, visited the beautiful Kirstenbosch gardens twice and drank at so many gorgeous wineries. I’ve run across the sand on Indian Ocean beaches at nighttime, watching the phosphorescent bacteria light up little sparks beneath my feet. I’ve bungee jumped for the first (and last) time, praying for my life while suspended over a silent canyon. I’ve watched the sun set in glorious colors on outside patios by the sea. I’ve had beautiful, wonderful conversations with new lifelong friends while drinking rooibos tea and eating rusks.

A low-quality image of a high-quality South African sunset, on my final ascent of Table Mountain

I’ve even had time to examine what I want my future career to look like. I’ve decided to pursue global health research in the future, to help draw attention to health care access among minority groups in the U.S. My professors and TA’s in Stellenbosch have helped me see that it’s a path that I can carve out for myself.

This past quarter in South Africa has been one of the highlights of not just my time at Northwestern, but of my life so far. I feel so blessed, and so, so privileged, to have done it all, and I hope to be back again someday.