GUSS – An Awesome Experience

During July 2012 Millie Phiri attended the Graz University Summer Summer School, here is her story.

It’s very rare that one gets to stay in a castle, let alone if it’s a student. Situated in a serene area on a hill top overlooking Leibnitz town and surrounded by natural green forests and wine farms, this magnificent structure built in the 12th century for a Roman Catholic bishop, is known as Seggau Castle. Although it has since been modernised, some of its original structures have been left intact as we learnt from a guided tour of the Castle one afternoon.  The Castle’s 300 year old wine cellar is a tourist attraction for its tasty wines although in my opinion wines produced from Stellenbosch still remain highly competitive internationally. In fact there is some resemblance of the Castle and Stellenbosch such as the greenery and the unpredictable climate conditions. One time it’s sunny and one cannot resist jumping in the swimming pool and the next minute there is an outpour of rain, forcing everyone to scurry for cover.

Stellenbosch University Journalism student, Millie Phiri, poses a question at one of the plenary sessions
Stellenbosch University Journalism student, Millie Phiri, poses a question at one of the plenary sessions


The beautiful scenery at the Castle is complemented by delicious breakfasts, lunches and scrumptious dinners comprising fresh vegetables, fruits, colourful and tasty deserts for the majority of 14 days of my stay in a dining room overlooking the sparkling swimming pool.  Although this sounds like a typical holiday it is fortunately not. These were some of the fringe benefits of attending one of the most prestigious summer schools at Graz University Summer School (GUSS) in Austria, held from July 15 to July 29, courtesy of Stellenbosch University.

When I was informed about my successful application I was obviously ecstatic that my dream had come true but surprisingly I had no idea it will turn out to be such an awesome academic experience.

As exciting as it may sound a lot of behind the scenes work goes on prior to travelling which may prove to be mentally and physically challenging.  One need to be highly organised to meet deadlines for various tasks ranging from submission of documents to applying for a visa and purchasing a ticket. To avoid disappointments one needs to start preparations well ahead of time, preferably eight weeks before travel.

There is need to shop around for the airline ticket via online or trusted travel agencies.  It is not just about getting the cheapest or most expensive ticket but it is also about choosing a route that will make your trip pleasurable rather than a nightmare. A budget must be drawn up to take care of hidden costs such as visa fees, travel insurance, transport to and fro the airport as well as tuition fees that may be required upfront.   Check on the following: travel insurance, visa fees if applicable, a valid passport and visa requirements for any countries used as transit points. It is advisable to ensure travel preparations are completed at least four weeks before departure to avoid stressful last minute rush.

In addition, one needs to study reading material for the academic sessions well ahead of the summer school to enable them to participate meaningfully in interactive discussions.  Good planning and preparation puts one in a good frame of mind and enables one to not only enjoy the educational experience but the cultural/ tourist experience too as well as make friends and make long lasting professional contacts. A summer school also exposes one to the various learning avenues or opportunities available. It is therefore not a rigid experience.  Lack of preparation may result in one getting bored and frustrated.

GUSS 2012 was both an academic and fun packed exercise.  Each day there was a morning plenary session where lecturers hosting various seminars spoke on their areas of expertise and the methods that they were going to use to teach. Special guests also addressed students on areas of interest such as sustainable development, climate change and available academic opportunities in the Americas and Europe among other topics. The afternoon session was reserved for seminars. The seminars comprised political, economy, American-India studies, gender and identities, literature and film and society.  Evenings were flexible. Students could watch movies; hang out with other students or lecturers in the cafe for coffee, drinks etc, play games, read, do homework or sleep.  My highlight was the karaoke night where lecturers joined in the fun. Wednesday to Friday students participated in one of the following workshops: writing for media, academic writing and creative writing. All plenary, seminars and workshops were strictly compulsory.

Weekends were a mixture of business and pleasure.  The first Saturday included a tour of Graz University hosted by the university’s international office staff members and a visit to the Mayor’s office, which provided a tour of Graz city, the second largest after the capital Vienna, despite a heavy downpour of rain.  The second Saturday was spent show casing what we had learnt and receiving certificates of attendance, stroll streets of Leibnitz, although everything virtually shuts down at 12 noon and lastly the memorable farewell barbeque.  The one Sunday which students had was free.  I was among the group of students who on that day visited Europe’s arts attraction for 2012, the city of Maribor, situated in the neighbouring country of Slovenia, only 40 minutes away by train from Seggau Castle.

During the summer school I attended the gender and identities seminar taught by Isabel Caldeira from Coimbra University in Portugal and Alexandra Berlina from a Germany University, Duisberg-Essen. Discussions focused on how women from the slavery period in the West fought for their rights, asserting their identities and making their experiences visible. Literary works by female writers both from the West and Africa were analysed to search for the various forms used by women to emancipate and to make themselves visible.  Discussions also centred on how identity and sexuality was depicted in the 19th century using diverse literal texts, film and short stories. The group had an opportunity to hold a combined seminar with students from the economics seminar and analysed how different gender groups are impacted differently by development programmes and economic projects such as the millennium development goals which are aimed at improving the world’s economy by 2015.

The seminar was appealing and timely because my thesis, which I will soon embark on, will be on gender and media.  Feminism is not a homogenous term and is therefore interpreted differently in different cultures and societies. I wanted to learn about perspectives in the Americas and I believe the knowledge I gained will definitely add value to my thesis.  This was crucial for me because while I have learnt media theories in general of which feminism is one of them, feminism has not been taught in detail by my journalism department at Stellenbosch so the summer school opportunity, although not providing everything that I would have wanted to learn, certainly helped to fill the missing gap. The opportunity also helped me to network with other students who have written theses on gender and I was able to learn from their experiences.  It helped me to build a network of contacts, not only from the group attending the identities and gender seminar but from those attending other seminars, including lecturers. I hope to draw from their expertise whenever I need it.

Having said all this, there is the other side of summer school. There exists the possibility of unmet expectations if one fails to prepare adequately or choose a programme that does not match their academic objectives. These may be lecturers who come unprepared and fail to deliver, discussions that may prove to be totally irrelevant to one’s study, the possibility of sharing accommodation with a person that one may not be compatible with and the inability to socialise or network and confinement at one place for several days that may resemble high school boarding days.

But as for me, the 14 days was an awesome experience.  When I arrived home it was not easy to slide back to my normal routine.  My approximately 12 hour flight back home was just as exhausting as the packed Summer school programme. Naturally I longed for a break for a day or two just to find time to synthesise everything as the 14 days went by so fast. I was however, happy to learn that Stellenbosch University is regarded highly and there is so much interest by other students who would want to visit on an exchange programme. I learnt that summer schools do not only benefit the individual student but the institution as well because students from other countries get to know more about it. My interaction with other students and lecturers showed that Stellenbosch is keeping abreast of international academic trends such as academic writing standards and student support to attend academic programmes such as the summer school.

Summer School exposes one to numerous other possibilities that are available in the world that can be used to enhance one’s academic studies while at the same time learning about other cultures or languages. Exchange programmes are some of these avenues.   There is a growing appetite for education internationally which is a stimulating factor. For example it was inspiring to meet so many women aspiring to attain doctorate degrees, something which is commendable and needs to be emulated by South African women. Attending a summer school has changed my whole perception of exchange programmes and I would certainly want to take part in one should an opportunity arises.