Learning in the Motherland

Vietnam is the motherland of my ethnicity, but Africa is the motherland of my species.  Humans.  Homo sapiens.  And this is a glimpse of the university campus:


It has been two weeks since school has started here, and I am already overwhelmed with all that I have to do.  I actually feel like I shouldn’t be writing a blog post right now because I have hundreds of pages to read, lots of research to do, and a very important side project.

But, I just wanted to take the time to share how my educational attainment that University of Cape Town is going.

First, before I arrived to Cape Town, I had heard that grading is tough, lots of work is assigned, and instructors have high expectations.  I guess that’s a given for many higher institutions of learning so why am I even complaining?  One of the reasons why I wanted to study abroad was because I wanted to get away from the Berkeley academic culture, which I feel is so highly competitive.  There is a certain atmosphere, a certain kind of mentality, that Berkeley produces that pushes students to work hard and be productive, but for me, I felt that every semester I was killing myself to do well in school.  I don’t think I can thrive in that kind of setting for that long.

[This may be true for many other places, but I can only speak about how I feel about Berkeley.]

So, I felt like I needed to get away from that and experience something different.  So, when I heard these things about UCT, I feared that it would just be another semester at Berkeley.

So, how is it really?

It’s hard to answer at this stage because I’m only two weeks in.  I definitely have a lot to do, and my classes have managed to make me freak about my ability to get it all done.

During my first week here and school hadn’t started yet, a student advisor for study abroad students came to advise us about enrolling in courses here (which is totally an old-school-waiting-in-queues-filling-out-appropriate-forms-on -paper system).  She told us that most semester study abroad (SSA) students take three courses and are only allowed to take a maximum of four.  She also advised us to pay attention to how many credits the classes we enroll in were worth because they would have to transfer to a full course load at our home universities.

Let me try to explain.  In general, how many credits a class is worth increases with the year.  Second year courses are worth more than first year courses.  Third year courses are typically worth more than second year courses.  The credits are a way to indicate difficulty and amount of work. Unless you are taking classes from the Faculty of Commerce, which all the classes are worth same amount of credits.  A third year course in Commerce, which is more difficult, is worth the same as a first year course.

This is generally not a problem for local students because there isn’t really a credit minimum here to be considered a full-time student, as long as they enroll in three courses (typically, local students are enrolled in 4-5 courses).  But, since the credits have to transfer over to Berkeley and we do have a unit minimum, I do have to worry about enrolling in enough classes to meet that minimum.

And of course, I am taking my classes from the Faculty of Commerce.  I have to take at least two courses from Commerce as I am an Economics major, so no matter how I rearranged my classes, I have to take 4 courses.

At first, I wasn’t concerned too much about this, but when I told people about the course load I was planning to take (1 first year course, 2 third year courses, and 1 honors course, which is a post-grad course), they were shocked.  Actually, I was nervous about it too, but I had come to accept that it was what I needed to do.  But, people were impressed (if “impressed” is the right word) that I was doing so much.  Didn’t I want to enjoy my time in Cape Town and not study all the time?

And if you know me, you would know that this freaked me out.  I was doing four courses and an internship.  Could I handle it?  Will I die?  Will I miss out on fun opportunities because I’ll be studying all the time (as I was in Berkeley)?

I tried to remind myself that yes, I am here to study.  I have had hard course loads before, and I’ve managed to pull through.  I can do this.

However, being me, it was hard not to feel doubt in my abilities.  I feared that this was going to be another semester at Berkeley, and that’s something that I didn’t want.

So, I tried to work around it.  I couldn’t drop a course because with the four courses, I was barely making the unit minimum; I surpassed it by 0.3 units.  I couldn’t drop my internship because I really want to do it; I feel like it will be a very worthwhile experience.  The only answer was to use my internship to earn course credit and drop one course.  Good, because there was one class that I felt didn’t appeal to me as much as the other ones (based on the course description).

But, … then I went to that class.

The instructor was really dynamic. It’s a hands-on class. It’s a life skills course, so I could learn a lot of skills that I could apply to later in my life. People participate a lot, and the instructor already learned my name. And then, I felt anxious. Because almost all the students in the class are post-graduate students. They are 23-24 years old. The research project seems to be very involved, requiring a lot of time outside of class. The grading rubric is intimidating.

I was scared. So, throughout the class, which was two hours, I had this battle in my mind about dropping or not dropping the course. I honestly feel like I’ll learn a lot, and get real world experience (because we’re contacting social enterprises as our project), but it’s a time issue. I feel like I’m already involved in so many other things. I didn’t want to stress out more than I had to.  I was really leaning towards dropping the class.

I went to the instructor and told him how I felt. He encouraged me to take the course, and told me that I should just stick with it and let me him know how I feel as it goes along. He was honest about the work that will be required but he can tell that I’m a hard worker and he says that he will put money on it that I will be a student that sticks out in the end.

In the meantime, I was networking in the class to pick groups. Everyone was super friendly and passionate. Finally, an another instructor said to me, you will do well because you will work hard but you also have to believe in yourself.  The first instructor asked me, “Are you going to take the course?” And I said, “Yes”. Then, one of my new friends said, “Good, because I had already stolen you to be in my group.”

So, that’s how it came to be that I am taking four classes and doing one internship.  It’s a lot.  But, I’m okay with it now.  I’ve grown comfortable with my decision.

One my professors back at Berkeley advised me to “close my eyes and jump” as it is sometimes necessary to push our limits.  I believe that.

So, I am going to work hard, do my best, and try to believe in myself.  I really feel like I will learn a lot this semester because all my classes are related to each other in some aspect.  I’m excited to see what this semester has in store, in the beautiful city of Cape Town.

Over and out.

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