Back to SummaryElaine Albertson - Student Profile
MAJOR: Earth Systems CoTerm (BS/MS)
For me, Cape Town was a surprise. I had no idea what I was getting into when I accepted the Bing program’s offer to study in Cape Town spring quarter of my junior year. I had applied to the program on a whim, knowing little about South Africa or even about Africa in general. I had heard rave reviews about the city from friends who participated in pilot programs of previous years, but I never thought I would ever actually go there until an errant conversation with a friend (who was leaving soon for winter quarter in CT) pushed me to do a bit of research into South Africa, and to, of course, apply for the program.
I always knew I wanted to study abroad. When I was a kid my parents would tell me stories of their travels and adventures in foreign countries and so I entered college with studying abroad high on my must-do list. I began junior year signed up to spend winter quarter with the Bing program in Madrid. I was planning on staying abroad after that, maybe spending another quarter in Spain or heading south to Santiago. I was interested in the contrast between the “old world” of Europe and the “new world” of previously colonized states. However, once the seed of Cape Town was planted in my mind I couldn’t get away from the thought of spending my spring in this fascinating country. The more I learned about South Africa the more I craved it. I read online about NGOs and businesses, students and politicians, all trying to navigate the blank yet still tarnished slate left for the country at the end of apartheid.
When I left for Cape Town I feared that my academic interests were not likely to align with those of the stereotypical student enrolled in the program. I wasn’t pre-med, I didn’t know much about public health, I had never taken a course about Africa and I didn’t know Zulu from Swahili. I was a broadly educated Earth Systems major, an oceanographer turned urban planner, with a minor in “Modern Languages” (French and Spanish). I had negotiated my coursework plan so that I could afford to take a few ‘non-applicable’ classes that spring, but I was still nervous that my background would make me irreconcilably different from the rest of the students on the trip. I began to question my decision to throw myself into a group of what I assumed would be cutthroat premeds looking to add “Studied in Africa” to their resumes. Luckily, my fears were of course totally unfounded. While many of my classmates were interested in health and medicine, every single one of them was funny, adventurous, respectful, and giving. I loved spending time with my Stanford housemates, forming friendships that we continue to indulge today with reunion ‘braais’ and get-togethers. There is a place for everyone in Cape Town, no matter what you study. At its core the Cape Town program draws people who are passionate about people. Everyone I traveled with was committed to serving others in their own particular way. I found that in spite of differences in our backgrounds, personalities, and future goals, my classmates and I always connected through our shared attitude towards public service and our common respect for humanity.
Perhaps because I was taking them for fun rather than for my major, I loved my Cape Town courses. In archaeology class I dined on hunter-gatherer cuisine and scrambled on cliffs, searching for ancient treasure on rocks overhanging what is now a modern-day minitaxi terminus. In my Xhosa course I sang songs, wrote skits, and learned the few simple phrases I needed to open relationships with people I might never otherwise have connected with. And in the program’s core service learning course I found a passion that eventually led me back to Africa.
When in Cape Town I was placed as a service learner with Abalimi Bezekhaya, a group that supports urban farming and community gardens in the Cape Flats townships outside of the city. I and another student worked several hours per week on a farm, hanging and helping out with a group of spunky old Xhosa grandmothers who grew produce to make money and to feed their families. I and my service learning partner weren’t the first Stanford students to work with Abalimi through the Bing program, and we found upon arrival that our affiliation caused the organization to have certain expectations and presumptions about who we were and what we could offer. We were forced to work as careful diplomats, maintaining the existing relationship between Stanford and Abalimi yet still offering ourselves as individuals with particular skills and interests. I, like many others who have gone through the Bing program here, found service learning to be the most challenging yet profoundly life-changing component of my time in Cape Town. Indeed, working with Abalimi revealed to me my passion for urban food security and urban agriculture. I left Cape Town at the end of that spring quarter, but began senior year on campus hoping to return. Winter quarter of my senior year I was admitted to the Earth Systems co-terminal master’s program and was fortunate to receive funds to return to Cape Town a second time to conduct thesis research. I spent the summer after my senior year conducting research closely with Abalimi and other urban agriculture stakeholders in the Cape Flats.
Cape Town is a city which drives me crazy with its contradictions: beautiful yet impoverished, ‘hectic’ (to use a South African term) yet peaceful, empowering yet painfully challenging at times. This country is in constant flux. For anyone who has been going to school in America I think South Africa can be a pleasantly stimulating, exciting, and dynamic place to live.
I am excited to hear about the political and cultural landscape encountered by future Bing program attendees, and I hope that for them Cape Town remains the sanctuary of personal growth that it has been for me.