Semester Abroad, Global Correspondents Soaring

February 3, 2020
By Keren Stearns, CAS '21

Keren Stearns is one of the Semester Abroad Global Correspondents, writing and sharing her experience abroad during the Fall 2019 semester. Follow along with the group of correspondents on our blog and look out for their student takeovers on the @pennabroad Instagram.

Semester Abroad
CIEE Cape Town, South Africa: Arts and Sciences

Before traveling abroad, I was advised that an unfortunate truth about Cape Town is that it’s unsafe to do a lot of things in the city alone. For example, as a young woman, I didn’t feel comfortable going downtown alone, and I would never consider walking anywhere without a friend after dark. Because Cape Town has so much to offer, and because I wanted to maximize my opportunities while there, this meant that I needed to develop a strategy to get the most from my semester. I quickly befriended people from my abroad program, students from all different backgrounds and all different universities. We realized that we would have to be a team to explore the city, and our personal interests, together.

I found friends who loved having a quiet night and baking like I did, and we would cook dinner and make lots of desserts. I even went to a chocolate-making workshop with three friends toward the end of the semester; we made bonbons at Honest Chocolate, a Cape Town-based company. But I also found friends who were extremely adventurous and outdoorsy. After introducing them to my interests, I decided to explore some of their hobbies with which I had little experience. After just 10 short days in Cape Town, I was talked into hiking Lions Head, a mountain that I was told is “for beginners” and “pretty easy,” but that tore me apart the whole way up because of how quickly my more-fit friends were climbing. Once I reached the top, I was amazed by the view and the new bonds I had formed with my fellow hikers.

After this hike, I realized that I wanted to be able to reach more stunning views. I met people who felt the same way and wanted to take it slowly; alongside my friends, I steadily conquered Elephant’s Eye, Woodstock Caves, and various rock formations that led to glorious sunsets. I even traveled to Namibia for four days with three friends, where we hiked two sand dunes, Big Daddy and Dune 45, in the blazing heat. Hiking sand dunes is very different than hiking mountains, because your legs get weighed down with the sand that builds up in your shoes, and your feet sink down into the dune as you work to climb upward. Although I couldn’t make it to the peak of the first dune, I was proud of how far I went and that I forced myself to try. During my final week in Cape Town, a good friend convinced me to re-hike Lion’s Head. Leaving our apartments at 4:30 am, she promised we could walk slowly, and would revel in the most stunning cotton candy sunrise. She was right; this was the best hike of my life, making me want to do more.

As my family will likely tell you, I’m not a huge fan of rock climbing; I struggle every time, and I get frustrated if I can’t reach the top of a wall. But this semester I went twice. A friend of mine raved about a rock climbing place she had found in the city, pushing me to join her so that I could both climb, with her belaying, and she could climb, with me belaying her. By the end of my second trip, I could belay several friends and climb more advanced walls than I did back home, thanks to her help and encouragement.

As my semester abroad came to an end, I realized there was one more amazing thing I wanted to do. This time the idea was my own. I decided I wanted to go paragliding. Before July, I don’t think I would ever have initiated this trip. I would have waited for someone to persuade me to go, or I would have avoided it altogether. I would have found a way to talk myself out of it and convinced myself that the experience would not be worth the fear. But by then, I had decided that I wanted to experience the city I had grown to love from a different perspective, higher than from the mountains I had somehow climbed, and with the thrill of floating in the air. And I was blown away. By how much of Cape Town I was able to take in at once, and by how free I felt being temporarily removed from everything we experience when in the city, when climbing, or simply when engaging in civilization. I was alone, soaring.

My semester abroad helped me discover things that I didn’t know I would love and things I didn’t know about myself. I have a new appreciation for hiking, an admiration for rock climbing, and a particular soft spot for thrill-seeking in the sky. And, of course, I still love baking. While Cape Town has many problems, and is far from perfect, it is also wonderful, a city with truly unique opportunities and spectacular beauty. It has marvelous mountains and breathtaking sunsets. Thanks to Cape Town, I have new hobbies, a much greater sense of adventure, and most of all, amazing new friends.

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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.