Cecile in Austria

Preparation for the Summer School

I first heard about the summer school in Austria from a friend of mine who attended it in 2013 and immediately thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to not only study abroad, but also travel during the June/July holidays. This thought sparked numerous sleepless nights and days spend in anguish waiting to hear if I had been accepted.

Firstly, you must choose the summer school you want to attend and then follow the University’s application procedure. This entails convincing professors to write something nice about you for a testimonial, concocting a motivation letter in which you have to find nice things to say about yourself and making a 7 minute video that serves as the only real “interview” you will have with the selection committee. Start early with this video (I spend a sleepless night on trying to finish this in time) and put effort into it. Try showing who you really are and focus on the things that make you unique. Don’t focus on what you think they want to hear, but be creative and original – that is how you make an impression.

Being selected, along with one of my fellow classmates, prompted a series of administrative nightmares. The visa applications caused many a grey hair and a small slip on the side of the University of Graz, left me with around two and a halve weeks to apply for a visa. If you do plan on travelling before the start of the summer school, keep in mind that the university you will visit must send letters of invitation to their respective South African embassies before you can apply for a visa. This could take longer than expected, and they don’t really keep your personal travel plans in mind. Thus you have to make sure you leave enough time to ensure you receive your visa before you have to leave. By some stroke of luck, the Austrian embassy was very diligent once they received our letters of invitation and within a week and half I had my visa.

For those applying for the first time, make sure the financial statements you provide as proof of your financial position is in English. Many banks only provide it in the language you indicated when you applied for your accounts and it takes a while to change it to English if it was in Afrikaans. Do this well in advance so you don’t have to reschedule your appointment for a visa application. Also, if you find that the times indicated for appointments online are fully booked, call the embassy or the visa processing centre and speak to them yourself. They can usually fit you in if it is a really urgent situation. The feeling of relief once you get your visa is only shadowed by the knowledge that you are on your way to Europe and the experience of a lifetime.

Summer School

The topic of the International Summer School Seggau 2014 was “Transformation and Change: Europe and Beyond.” We were 77 students from 26 different countries, with students from the former Yugoslavia comprising the majority of participants. The interaction with the different participants creates an interdisciplinary and intercultural environment that teaches you much more than the lectures you will be listening to or the seminars you will partake in. You can share a room with someone from Bosnia and Herzegovina, have lunch with an American and sing karaoke with someone from the Ukraine – all against the backdrop of the majestically located Seggau Castle near Leibnitz in Austria. The academic programme allows for students to critically engage with the lecturers and be exposed to a diversity of opinions. This enabled me to form a more nuanced understanding of the world we live in and the way in which the changing global order is affecting individual countries.

My seminar was called “Rhetorics of Transformation”, with the first week focussing mainly on the changing dialogue around citizenship in the Western Balkans. As a South African student, this is an area of politics we are rarely exposed to and it was fascinating to learn what challenges these countries face in trying to eradicate their communist past. There is an immense comparison between the history of South Africa and the histories of these countries. We face many of the same challenges and strive towards many of the same goals – something I could only really appreciate by speaking and interacting with students from the Western Balkans. The second week was aimed at the theories of Marxism, Neo-Marxism and movements like Occupy Wall Street and the American Tea Party. This seminar challenged us to envision what our own idea of a “utopia” would be and what we would regard as the perfect world. It was an exercise that, more than any other, really illustrated the diversity of the summer school and the ways in which our individual experiences shape our perceptions of the world.

The social environment created at the summer school is however the most interesting and fulfilling experience of all. From the country presentations, where students were allowed 7 minutes to tell the others about their country of origin, to simple conversations during lunch that produced a lot of “in my country”-moments. A karaoke evening, water polo games, movie nights and a few visits to the castle’s infamous wine cellar was a wonderful way to engage with all the students. The true worth of a summer school is not the academics, but the friendships that are formed and the personal growth that comes with being confronted by people and ideas that are vastly different from your own. It is about knowing that I could travel to Poland or Slovakia or even Kosovo and have a friend in every country. And it is about giving people a small insight into South Africa and having them know that they too have a friend, should they ever find themselves on the African continent.
Coming back

Attending a summer school changes your perceptions. Not just about your own country, but also about the place you study and the way you are taught. I learned that we as South African have a lot to be grateful for, that we complain too quickly about what we think is wrong in our country and that there are countries that are worse off than we could ever image to be. I came back with an appreciation for our unique sense of humour and the way in which we are willing to embrace the differences that distinguish us. My impression is that we are a lot more tolerant than our European counterparts and that we are more willing to speak about the tensions (racial, cultural, linguistic, social) that are inherent to countries with a diverse citizenry. Whereas we can learn a lot from Europe and the experiences they have had, there is also a great many things Europe can learn from us. Even though we are seen as a developing country, we are in many respects a lot more advanced in our thinking about the changing global order and we are more willing to listen to the opinions of people who differ from us. This is something that South Africa must never lose – it fosters an environment for dynamic dialogue that is essential for our continued development as a country.

The interaction with students from the summer school also made me realise that the education we receive at the University of Stellenbosch is really good enough to compete with any university in the world. In terms of academic standards we truly have nothing to be ashamed of and our students really can hold their own against the rest of the world. I would like to see however that the way in which courses are presented at the US become more interactive and dynamic. I believe there is great value in critically engaging with a topic and being forced to voice an opinion. This will really create students who are not only at university to obtain a degree, but to grow citizens that know how to really actively partake in public dialogue. The summer school also motivated me to consider other exchange programmes for postgraduate studies and add an international dimension to my planned master’s thesis. This would enable me to study at a European university which would really add to an already wonderful international experience.

The International Summer School Seggau is the opportunity of a lifetime. It changes who you are as a person and it changes the way in which you interact with the world around you. You realise that people all around the world are inherently the same – that even though we may look different, speak different languages and have different cultural, religious and social backgrounds, we still fear the same things. We are rejoiced by the same things and as the karaoke evening taught me – we all know Britney Spear’s “Oops I did it again.” This is a valuable lesson and one I will cherish for the rest of my life.