The Journal, University of Illinois at Springfield Weekly Campus Newspaper

Lost and Found: Student Abroad

The Journal invited UIS students studying abroad this semester to submit an essay detailing their experiences. This segment appears twice a month as part of a semester long series.

October 21, 2009
By Vicky Knoke
Stellenbosch University

My alarm goes off at 7:30 a.m.  Snooze button.  7:39. Snooze button.  This pattern will continue for another thirty to forty minutes.  I’m comforted by the fact that it doesn’t matter which side of the world I’m on, some things will never change.

Vicky Knoke with friends

Photo submitted by Vicky Knoke

Knoke interacts with African wildlife during her semester stay in South Africa. She travelled throughout the country on her spring break from Stellenbosch University.

Because of this morning’s fight with the alarm clock, I’m forced to speed through my typical morning routine.  While I brush my hair, I try to style it in a way that makes it appear clean. 

I can’t help but pause and look longingly at the pictures from spring break in September.  There are many things in South Africa that have just become the norm. 

The activities of my spring break aren’t one of those things: Bungee jumping, playing with elephants and monkeys, zip-lining through the forest, and riding a wild horse over sand dunes. 

Sadly those days are over and replaced by class and waking up to the sounds of my alarm instead of the sounds of the Indian Ocean outside my hostel. Because I’ve spent too much time daydreaming I have ten minutes to go two kilometers across campus.  No problem, I’ll take it at a brisk walk. 

Luckily, it’s a clear day and I can drool over the mountain landscape that surrounds the town of Stellenbosch while I walk.  I make it to the international office just in time to meet my driver. 

At Stellenbosch University I’m in a service learning certification program.  As part of this curriculum I spend six hours per week volunteering at a pediatric hospice for kids with HIV/AIDS and other terminal illnesses. 

I really appreciate this part of my study abroad experience because it gives me a more accurate view of South Africa.  This half hour drive takes me beyond the affluent neighborhoods of Stellenbosch into the reality of extreme poverty in Africa.    

Vicky Knoke and Warimu

Photo submitted by Vicky Knoke

Knoke poses for a picture with a young South African friend, Warimu. Knoke works with children suffering from terminal illnesses in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Today I walk into the nursery full of kids and the two biggest boys run to me.  I’m excited about this since I’ve been working to get them walking for the past two months.  I greet all of my little friends and spend the next few hours playing and trying to maintain order.

I get after one kid, Eminathi, for hitting the new baby for the 800th time and it’s easy for me to forget that I’m working with sick kids.  They play, laugh, and pull hair just like the kids I know in Illinois.

Then Zo-wen, who has tuberculosis, starts coughing uncontrollably and I remember where I am.  I’m in Africa.  This is real; it’s not facts in a book or a news report from across the world. 

After I’m done with my time at my site I say my goodbyes and head back to my house.  I get back just in time to grab some lunch before my two o’clock language class, Afrikaans.  I slip into my Afrikaans alter ego, Wanda Wentzel, and brace myself for the next two and a half hours.

My teacher is a little crazy and I love it.  Her teaching style is very similar to what I remember of my kindergarten teacher.  Some people in my class are offended. I’m relieved. 

I’ve never been good at learning languages and Afrikaans is no exception.  Today we get to color and do some role-play.  The final activity is Afrikaans speed dating.  There are no words to accurately describe how awkwardness of this situation.

The class gets over at 4:30 p.m. and I finally have time to get ready for the day.  I head home to clean myself up and get ready for dinner.  One of the great things about South Africa is the price of eating out; I can get a meal at a nice restaurant for less than $10.  Tonight I’m meeting my friends at Binnehoff, one of our favorite places. 

As we sit around laughing and sipping our world-famous South African wine I’m amazed.  I have a favorite restaurant in a town across the world from where I grew up.  I have some amazing friends that I didn’t know five months ago.  I’m having experiences that most of the world will never get. I’m in South Africa.

If you would have asked me five months ago to tell you something about South Africa I would have struggled.  I knew it was at the bottom of Africa, it looked pretty in an IMAX movie I watched and I had a plane ticket there for my fall semester. 

When I flew into Cape Town in July, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into and as the plane touched down I started to panic.  I thought I might have been crazy for leaving everyone I loved and everything I knew. 

Right now I’m up to my eyeballs in final projects and papers and it’s hard to imagine a time before South Africa felt like home.