by Keyra Ogden, Public Health in South Africa 2013
Exactly one year ago today I was on a plane to Cape Town, South Africa. The next three months in South Africa would change my perspective about the world and stay with me forever. It seems surreal that this incredible experience was so long ago. Sometimes I can’t even believe that it happened. As soon as I stepped back on campus, life returned to its normal routine and aside from the initial interest in my experiences abroad, the topic of South Africa and my time there rarely comes up in conversation. Luckily I have a group of 19 other Northwestern students to reminisce with and to help keep my experiences alive. Without them, I think I would feel an overwhelming sense of frustration.
Many people I talk to about my time in South Africa only want to hear about the safari or the bungee jumping (WHICH WERE BOTH AMAZING), but my experience there was SO much more than that. It’s hard to convey exactly what you learned and how things affected you to those who did not experience them with you. The frustration sets in when you start to feel like no one else truly understands what you have to say and they just want the 30 second recap – which is honestly impossible to come up with. Generally, you get the question “How was South Africa?” To which you mentally respond, “How on earth am I supposed to answer that question? I was there for three whole months and saw social segregation, health disparities, townships full of thousands of people living in spaces no bigger than my bathroom at home with no plumbing or electricity, cultures vastly different from my own, new traditions, new foods, different currency, new languages, traditional medicine men, children with no shoes, lots of mullets, beautiful beaches, contrasting living conditions, rugby games, and the list goes on. And that’s only what I saw, not what I learned or what I felt or who I met or how my perspective changed!” However, you verbally respond, “It was fantastic, I had the time of my life,” because that’s the short and socially appropriate response (and all anyone usually wants to hear).
But salvation comes when you remember that you have a network of friends on campus that lived every moment with you. These friends have been my support network and have helped me continue to incorporate my experiences in South Africa into my everyday life. In addition, as an IPD ambassador, I have gotten to relive my experiences and share them with new groups of people – most notably, those who are on their way to South Africa right now to participate in my program. The ability to share my experience with them and to get them excited about going abroad has honestly led to a sense of personal fulfillment. My efforts as an ambassador have helped me feel as though my experiences matter and always will. Many people don’t realize that it can be tough to adjust back to the normal routine after returning from being abroad. The key is finding ways to keep your experiences a part of you each day – whether it be writing about it in papers for class, reminiscing with friends from abroad, going to international events related to your country, keeping in touch with friends you made in-country, or even becoming an ambassador for your program. Keep your experiences a part of you and don’t let them fade away because they are worth sharing and only help you continue to grow!