Learning to Learn Beyond the Classroom

When I called my parents from France last October to tell them I wanted to study abroad in the spring, they were instantly on board. The one thing my Mom mentioned was that I should consider if I was willing to miss another semester of Georgetown classes. Naturally, since she is right about everything, I ignored her.

Fast forward six months and I’m getting emotional while I do pre-registration for senior fall. In all my semesters of pre-registration, I have never felt anything beyond stress and confusion. Now, I find myself homesick while reading descriptions of calculus courses (and I do not like calculus).

That’s the power of the University of Botswana, commonly known as UB. My classes here have been a mixed bag, to say the least. In my program through CIEE, I take three courses at UB with local students and three courses made especially for students on my program. At UB, I am taking two social science courses and one statistics course.

I’ve come to realize that the commitment to education held by both professors and students at Georgetown is not the rule but the exception. Here, professors regularly show up to class at least 10 minutes late. I had a professor not come to class for two weeks without explanation. Another professor consistently claimed he was in his office, but every time I went to discuss homework with him, he was not there. I spent a week chasing him around campus. In one course, twice we did not know the time of the test or the material covered on the test until the day of. In multiple classes, professors have graded papers based on expectations not shared with the students when the paper was first assigned. When discussing our final exam, one professor said “aim for 50%, not 100%.” Lastly, when a friend went to talk to a professor about a test she did poorly on despite having included the necessary information, the professor simply responded “I just don’t like the way you people write.”

Similarly, my experiences with students at UB has left me actually missing the stereotypical SFS and Government kids in an Intro IR discussion class who trip over each other to get a word in. Generally speaking (and it is important to note this is based solely on my and my friends’ observations), students here often have little interest in their studies. This is not surprising considering the fact that professors frequently do not seem to care much about teaching either. One professor proudly announced to the class that only four out of seventeen students were failing the course. In most classes, students just don’t respond to professors’ questions. When I had to write a group paper with six local students, several of them sent me plagiarized work. Students sometimes yell (literally yell) at the professor without raising their hand to complain about an unfair deadline (usually one we’ve known about for weeks), a new assignment, or the fact that they can’t see the Powerpoint slides because of the glare.

Of course, there are students and professors who care about their work here. My roommate created an entire campaign on campus to raise awareness for gestational hypertension as part of her PR class. I have really enjoyed my history course because my professor is incredibly intelligent about the topics covered (colonialism and subsequent independence in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Mozambique) and forces us to think critically about how to respond to lingering effects of colonialism today. And those are just two examples. I know there are many more committed students and professors whom I don’t know because they keep their heads down and do the work.

I understand that this post may seem discouraging, but what I want to convey is that when you sign up for a study abroad program (especially if you go abroad for a year), you might not get the experience in the classroom that you’re used to. Even if you are desperate for a break from the demands of Georgetown (as I was when I went to Strasbourg last semester), you will find yourself missing those exact demands that drove you crazy. Because you are a Hoya and Hoyas are delightfully insane nerds.

Despite the challenges I’ve encountered in the classroom, I have learned an incredible amount about Botswana and Southern Africa through conversations and experiences both inside and outside the classroom. I now know Batswana views on marriage, bride price, gender roles, children, feminism, sexuality, and gender-based violence. I better understand how higher education, employment, and aid for citizens function in this country. Through visiting public clinics every week as part of my program, I’ve come to comprehend how the healthcare system here works and the ways in which it can improve. I’ve seen how Christianity influences daily life here and have gone to a church service. I’ve witnessed the lasting impact of colonialism on the region (although Botswana was a British protectorate and not a colony) through my travels. And then there is a whole host of little things I know just from living here everyday, like the makeup of the Batswana diet or the Batswana’s deep love of selfies.

To me, this is the real purpose of study abroad. If I wanted the best possible academic education I could receive, I would’ve stayed at Georgetown. But by coming here, I’ve been able to immerse myself in a completely foreign culture and learn far more about this country and region than I ever could at Georgetown. I know that my experiences here will add to my coursework back at Georgetown and to my work at future jobs. They have already altered my mindset and the way I view the world.

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