Culture shock at a South African university

Student Aletta Simpson states that the social diversity at her South African university is one of its biggest challenges but also one of its biggest assets 

February 29 2020

At Stellenbosch University there is a buzzword used by those responsible for welcoming first-year students: “culture shock”. Many students will also tell you that this phrase accurately describes their experience when first coming to Stellenbosch.

I am sure all universities have elements of this and that most students experience this, but I would like to give you a glimpse into what culture shock might mean to the Stellenbosch student.

I am currently doing my honours (fourth year) in Afrikaans and Dutch. My home language is Afrikaans and because of the language’s close relation to Dutch, at Stellenbosch the subject is called Afrikaans and Dutch.

This year I am also a tutor in this subject. The objective of my first tutorial was to introduce myself and let the class introduce themselves to each other. I chose a fairly neutral topic, but later when I spoke to the tutor co-ordinator he explained that he always asks the students to tell the class their name and explain how they got to class this morning.

Some students might then explain that they drove their car from their acommodation on campus and some might even live close enough to walk to class. Others, however, live further and had to get up early to take public transport (which is not that reliable in South Africa) or drive quite far. They might have struggled to get parking this morning or came early to secure a parking spot and had to wait on campus for their class.


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This is only one example of the practical implications of the social diversity on campus. There are many more examples.

Some students often go to the famous wine farms just outside campus for wine tastings while others do not have enough money for lunch. Some students have Macbooks and others do not have enough money to pay the small fee to print their assignments. I do not believe this is a Stellenbosch-only problem, but it is one of the most jarring problems our university faces.

However, it is important to note that even though it is our biggest problem it is also our biggest privilege: we naturally have to integrate with people from all levels of society. It might be the first time you meet a queer person or a person with more liberal views than you, but one of the biggest shocks will be the difference in privilege among students. 

As I’ve mentioned, I am sure that we are not the only university whose students have this experience and it is not an experience that is confined to our campus. Stellenbosch is a product of the country we live in. But our country does not have many spaces where people from all its “worlds” come together to work and learn together.

For many students this is the first time they have to function on their own, and also the first time they have to function outside their “world” within South Africa.

That is why I would like to venture that Stellenbosch University’s biggest “problem” is also its most valuable asset. It is one of the reasons it is so enriching to study at this university. I can almost guarantee you that you will learn just as much from the diversity on campus as you will in its classrooms.

Read more: Best universities in Africa

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