Studying “abroad” from home

Katia standing in front of the University of Cape Town on first day of school.
My first day of school featuring Sarah Baartman Hall and the cloud-covered mountains!

This past semester, I got to experience school in the most incredible way possible, studying at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa through the UC Education Abroad Program. It was more than a dream, and although I’ve had my heart set on this trip for six years, it still managed to exceed all my expectations. For context, while South Africa is a less traditional study abroad destination, I was drawn there because it is perfectly nestled at the southwestern tip of the continent, surrounded by both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. It has an identical and opposite latitude to Los Angeles so the climate is just like California, the university is the best in Africa, and it frames the stunning 3500 ft Table Mountain as the ideal place to get outdoors while still having the urban city lifestyle. Needless to say, the seven weeks that I studied and lived in South Africa were the highlight of my life, and fly 10,000 miles home in late March when the US issued a global travel advisory was sad and scary!

Although my first day of UCT classes was over 5 months ago, I only just finished my semester, albeit my classes were online. It was pretty hectic (fun fact: the word hectic is the main slang used throughout the country, and particularly by UCT students!) for my university to transition online due to the strict lockdown in South Africa and unequal student access to technology. Therefore, my classes took a 7 week break as they transitioned online and my semester ended a whole 7 weeks after the original end date.

Me on top of Devil's Peak with the city of Cape Town below
Devil’s Peak is a fabulous hike, and it starts on campus!

While I went through cycles of sadness and anger for getting my semester cut short, I ultimately am beyond thankful that I lived abroad for a little while, and had the privilege to experience a global education from home. Even taking classes online, I was still getting a South African education, which challenged me and made me question how learning looks different outside of the US. It was the little things, like the fact that my Microsoft Word documents were formatted in South African English so the spell check would flag my spelling of the word behavior. Or in my oceanography class, I had to be mindful when I was talking about seasons and climate patterns, because in the southern hemisphere everything is flipped! Or the fact that I had to switch out of a minerology and crystallography class because it was way too challenging for me—and that was so humbling to recognize that UCT has the same caliber and rigor as UC Berkeley. Even the grading was super different, and I learned I could never get above a 70% on an essay, because the professors there are no joke.

Overall, while the majority of my “study abroad” was completed from my home country, I reflect on my time as a UCT student in-person and online and I think both experiences gave me an international perspective. While the future for the UC Education Abroad Program is uncertain and I so look forward to the day that international travel picks up again, I would encourage you to seek courses and educational resources that come from diverse countries and cultures, because you can still really gain that global perspective from your computer screen. And don’t worry, you know that I will be on first flight back to Cape Town and am looking forward to more time at UCT… maybe a Master’s degree?

Author: Katia Gibson

Hello! I'm Katia, a senior chemistry major and Cal Teach minor, and you'll either find me in the 24 hour library studying or out chasing sunsets on my long runs. I'm a Bay Area native and I also do work in the environmental community, research in an organic chemistry lab, and dance with Ballet Folklorico Reflejos de Mexico. Hoping that I can share a little bit of Berkeley's magic with you all, go bears!