Every international experience helps you grow and provides context for your own life and experiences. But none of my prior experiences have opened my mind quite in the same way that this program did!
I selected this program because it was on a continent I'd not yet journeyed to and because it fell within the guidelines of the research grant I was awarded that summer. While short (8 weeks or so flies by so fast!), I felt challenged by the classes and cared for by the staff and local students. That's right, I said local students! Getting to meet and spend time with locals is unfortunately not always a given during academic-focused programs, but this unique program uses a crew of local volunteers who take classes with you (this is their winter term, so they are giving up their school break to hang out with international students - so cool), live in the dorms with you, and help guide your transition to the new city. By the end of the experience, it felt like a private school full of international friends.
In addition to that component, two other things really stand out about this AIFS experience: 1) The option to take part in a Garden Route one week tour when the classes are done. Your classes are finished, you've made close friendships, you've had a unique culture experience and now you get to take it on the road for a week! So fun and solidified the friendships I had made in the previous weeks. 2) The classes are interactive, exploratory, and created to open your mind beyond the classroom. I am struggling to think of a single course I took that didn't have a field trip or cultural experience linked to it. Taking the class about HIV & AIDS in South Africa? Well, not only do you learn about how it is affecting the nation, but you actually go to a site where locals are working to create legal action to make the change and get to sit down with them. Taking any class about Apartheid? You are learning in a classroom where political decisions were made about this injustice and learning from teachers who participated in the first open elections. You visit townships to see first hand how that still plays out in today's society.
It's not for the faint of heart, but it will open your heart in a big way.
What would you improve about this program?
There are certain aspects of the program that cannot really be helped, but there are a few things to know before committing (that you may or may not understand from the brochure):
1) Although it may be your summer term, it is taking place over South African winter break. While I mentioned that there are a wonderful crew of local students to interact with, the rest of the campus is mostly empty because students are gone visiting their families. If you were looking for a busy city and lots of students hogging the cafeteria, you may need to adjust your expectations or do one of their semester programs.
2) The dorms are comfortable and safe, but there were quite a few of my fellow students who were disappointed with the food and cleanliness. Keep in mind that cleanliness, access to certain foods, and hot water are all cultural expectations of the USA - don't expect to find things exactly to your liking all the time. That's where the growing and gratitude happens!