The Best Experience of My Life that Almost Never Was

Alexis Tinoco
Washington University in St. Louis
African Ecology & Conservation in South Africa – Spring 2020
Me on the left, with a few of my classmates watching the sunrise over Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain.

My time in South Africa has undoubtedly been the best experience of my life, but it almost didn’t happen. I always knew I wanted to study abroad, but when it became a real opportunity, I found myself doubting whether it was what I really wanted. For months in the summer before, I debated if I really wanted to sacrifice an entire semester away from my friends and the community at my school, which I had built for myself over the last two years. While going abroad sounded like a dream come true, the idea of traveling so far away and being put into an environment full of people I had never met before was absolutely daunting to even think about. What if I didn’t get along with the group? After all, it was a small group of people to spend an entire semester with. Despite my doubts, I knew I would regret not taking this leap, so I filled out the application and before I knew it, I had committed to spend my spring semester studying ecology and conservation in South Africa!

Collecting water samples with my LRP (Long-term Research Project). Our project focused on taking water samples and then identifying and counting the number of micro-plastics present in the Sabie and Olifants rivers. Tedious work but super informative and cool!

However, my experience with OTS quickly dispelled any of those fears. From the first day at the airport, everyone was welcoming, and our group bond began to form as we sat around the pool at the backpackers in Johannesburg talking and going around the circle adding songs to the queue to learnabout everyone’s music taste. My best times on the program however, came when we were finally taken to Skukuza (OTS Field Station inside Kruger National Park) after spending about a week at Pullen Farm. Nothing quite compares to the freedom you feel riding in a game drive vehicle with the wind hitting you on all sides as you spot anything from elephants to hyenas, to an elusive leopard (or seven if you’re us and have crazy good luck for spotting them). One of the best parts of OTS in my opinion was the way in which you can learn and accomplish so much, and yet at the same time nothing really feels like work. Even after long days of sifting through paper abstracts in the library in the hope of finding something you could use for your report, the promise of an afternoon game drive would make up for it all. Our research projects were just as fun, being able to go into the field with the OTS lecturers and guest lecturers and learn from them all while performing our research. While fieldwork days were long and required getting up early to avoid the unforgivable midday heat, it was so exciting being able to collect our own data and research, knowing that our report would provide helpful information for future research, policies and critical decisions made by park management. Knowing we were conducting meaningful work rather than carrying out a project just to earn a grade made the work all the more worthwhile for me and made me feel really good at the end of each day.

A playful young elephant seen during an evening game drive covering one of its eyes as it feeds.

Aside from the academics, the small environment that I was initially hesitant about was actually an
amazing way to get to know people and make meaningful connections with them. Though our program was cut short, (because of the Coronavirus Pandemic) I treasured every moment of it and definitely made some amazing friends as our shared experiences brought us closer together with every passing day. No matter where in South Africa we were, the friendships that I developed made every place feel like home(which was essential with the amount of moving we did across the country). I saw a true community develop and these friends soon became like family which only made the program that much more fun. It was great knowing that I could count on these people and could talk to them whenever, which was especially comforting on stressful days when I simply needed to vent to someone about what was frustrating me. In the end, I was so glad I took this leap and studied abroad with OTS in South Africa.

The Meaning of Shingwedzi
In South Africa
The Meaning of Shingwedzi
Saying Goodbye a Little Early