Zimmerman experiences South African life

Erika Zimmerman displays brightly colored mementos of her time in South Africa. Many of the items are made with natural materials such as wood and banana leaves.
Erika Zimmerman displays brightly colored mementos of her time in South Africa. Many of the items are made with natural materials such as wood and banana leaves.

SCSU First Year Experience program gives her five months in Africa


by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer


Royalton 2012 graduate Erika Zimmerman had barely registered for her first semester at St. Cloud State University (SCSU) when she learned about a new program called First Year Experience.

“My aunt was there last June at advising days and told me I should go to South Africa,” she said. “My dad was with me and told me, ‘now’s the time to travel.’”

So she did.

Zimmerman had always wanted to study abroad; she just didn’t expect to have the opportunity so soon. To participate in the program, she took two required classes during the 2012 fall semester. One was an ethics class about South Africa and another one was called “Contemporary South Africa.”

Not certain how she would be able to finance the trip at first, Zimmerman discovered that financial aid would cover airfare, school tuition and accommodation.

“I paid for food, extra travel and books,” she said. “The financial aid covered about half the cost of the trip and the rest came out of my savings.

Zimmerman spent the month between the end of finals in December 2012, and the time she left in January, working at Pierz Villa, saving her money to take on the trip.

Her journey began Jan. 29 with a group of 21 students, 17 of whom were part of the same program. Her first impression of Africa was made when the plane landed in Dakar just as the sun was setting. Then she saw the African trees and felt the heat.

“I thought, ‘We are going to melt,’” she said.

Their first night was spent at a very nice hotel in Johannesburg. Zimmerman found the city to be upbeat and fast-paced.

The group then flew to Port Elizabeth, on the southeastern coast of South Africa.

“Life was more relaxed there; people were enjoying life,” said Zimmerman. “I’d been in the fast-paced setting of the United States and it was nice to relax and enjoy the little things.”

Contrasting what she observed in students from other countries, Zimmerman had to take a step back.

“There is more competition there, and not everyone who applies for college gets in,” she said. “If they have the opportunity, they are very grateful. They focus and put a lot into their books. I thought, ‘Everybody doesn’t get this chance.’”

In Port Elizabeth, parents pay for most students’ education, so the students can concentrate on their classes.

The group from SCSU took classes together at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). Zimmerman’s classes included photo journalism, economics micro, meteorology, computer fundamentals and community service learning.

“For community service we volunteered in the city. During the first half I was at an abandoned baby shelter called Thand’usana,” said Zimmerman. “During the second half I helped with a homework club at an elementary school.”

Zimmerman was required to journal during her community service.

“We had to reflect on how we were contributing,” she said.

The SCSU group lived in a housing community called “Annie’s Cove” in a section reserved mainly for international students. The one-story houses called “flats” were divided into four different living areas.

“One unique thing was having to pre-pay for electricity at a petrol (gas) station,” she said. “When we ran out of electricity we had to go pay and get a number to enter into a keypad at our flat.”

There were always willing companions to travel to other areas of the country. Some took a trip to a frontier farm. They travelled to East London to see Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned.

“It’s now an historical site,” said Zimmerman. “We went to Cape Town twice, and I went skydiving.”

Zimmerman found there were 11 official languages in South Africa. Everyone could speak English, so it wasn’t difficult to communicate.

“Everywhere we went, different languages could be heard,” she said. “I loved it.”

Zimmerman saw that she learned a lot interacting with local people.

“Taking a city tour, I was in tears, so sad, seeing children and stray animals with their rib cages showing,” she said. “People who were not very clean and were dressed in whatever they could find would still smile and wave like they have everything. They were so happy even though they don’t have much.”

NMMU has different sections, and Zimmerman contrasted the beautiful campus of one location with the area just across the road.

“There was bad water and cramped housing just across the road from a gorgeous campus,” she said. “It was very humbling.”

Zimmerman just returned to Minnesota, June 24. There is still South African currency and coins in her wallet. She is experiencing a reverse culture shock.

“I’m not used to it here yet,” she said. “Seeing price tags in dollars was just different. Hearing all the same language here, with all the same accent was strange.”

Although she didn’t drive in South Africa, she got used to being a passenger on the left side of the vehicle, and after she got home she reacted as if the driver were in the wrong lane.

“I waited after I got back to drive, and now I have to stop and think —it’s not automatic,” she said.

She met friends at Annie’s Cove that she hopes to have forever.

“Being there felt like a dream. Being around other people broadened my mind and changed my viewpoint,” said Zimmerman. “It made the world seem smaller.”

“I would definitely recommend it to others,” she said. “I couldn’t put a price on the trip. Not much has changed here, but I’ve changed as a person.”