The University of Cape Town is remarked the world over as being the best tertiary institution in Africa. Its reputation is not unduly boasted: it ranks 170 in Times Higher Education ladder, the academic staff was (and are) trained by some of the best universities in the world, its resources (libraries and research facilities and the like) are competitive and accessible – in short, it is a university that fits its mantle well. On paper, it is the best in Africa.
But being good on paper is not enough. As any person working in the professional field will tell you, a paper qualification will only take you so far. Sooner or later, all of life’s little lessons need to be stacked up and made to fulfil a gap that no amount of teaching, tutorials and assignments can cover. In short, there are some things that cannot be learned in a university lecture hall.
One of these lessons is how to get along in a crowd of people.
“Crowd” implies being trapped in some room or environment with people different from you in some way. Not so. The word “crowd” in this case is taken to mean people in general – they could be similar to you or they could be different. The point is that if they are not you, then they form a crowd. One of the best things that university teaches, as I have come to find, is how to cope with being in a larger social construct. The University of Cape Town in this regard is truly exceptional.
From the time I could crawl, I have always been surrounded by people. Whether it was my large family, my friendship circle in primary school or my social circle in high school, I have always had people around me. The one common thread that ran through all of the groups that encapsulated me was that they came from the same social background; we all had the same world views, we all thought in similar patterns – I hate to say it but our uniqueness was disconcertingly uniform.
The first time I truly experienced the word diversity was in university – more specifically, at UCT. Because I had the luxury of having been around many people and having been to more places than the average person, I assumed that I could call myself a “diverse person”. Upon arriving at UCT five years ago, my experiences seemed minute – they were one small dot in a sea of 25 000 students who all came from different backgrounds. True, there were some that were similar to mine, but they were different in the same way that cerulean blue and ordinary blue are (trust me, if you look closely, they are).
All of a sudden, I had no idea how to get along in this new alien world where the social rules were different, where my views were not always shared, where I was not always the best at something. Suddenly, I was just…me.
I was just a very small “me” in a very big crowd. And therein was the start of my journey to surviving the crowd.
It would be exhaustive to describe all of the little life lessons that can be picked up at UCT. Not all of them are specific to UCT, but there are some that are exquisitely unique to this place. Things like, print assignments on a Sunday evening rather than Monday morning, facing down hungry pigeons or how on Earth one is to find one’s way around campus on the first day of lectures. Most importantly, being at UCT teaches how to survive in a place where cultures and world views are in constant competition – there is not one view that is dominant, each one has its merits and disadvantages, some win certain battles, some lose others. No one can claim to know the UCT pulse through and through. Needless to say that after five years at UCT, I have learned that one of the best ways to survive the crowd…is to join the crowd.
When the latest crop of CIEE students came to Cape Town, it was refreshing (and amusing) to see them totter around UCT, trying to find their bearings on a campus that was so different from anything that most of them had experienced before – the language was somewhat different, the people were from cultural and social backgrounds most of them had only ever read about and the UCT system was different to their home universities as pink and blue are from each other. It was heartening though to see how they adjusted - UCT demands immediate adjustment.
The crowd swallowed them most of them up, it changed quite a few of them. Some of them are not the same people that left home – most will never be. Nonetheless, I am sure that they will leave this place knowing what it was like to have studied at Africa’s finest: they will have left knowing what uni(di)versity is.