Lyla Senn South Africa

February 2022


My first month in Stellenbosch, South Africa has been amazing! Prior to coming, I didn’t know much about the area. I had read that it was the heart of South Africa’s wine region and about a forty-minutes/hour drive outside Cape Town, but knew very little other than that. My first impression on the way from the airport to my on-campus residence was that it was stunning. Unlike the State’s where the drive from airports into cities are usually dull and past factories, their highway feels like a scenic route through the mountains with panoramic views of wine farms and smaller farms with Zebras and Springbok. 


The first week was a mix of wonderment and jet lag. Stellenbosch University hosted an orientation week for all international students where I was able to meet numerous students from France, Switzerland, Finland, Germany, Zimbabwe, the Netherlands, and Slovenia. During this week, we explored Cape Town beaches (Clifton and Camps Bay), got up close and personal with African penguins at Boulders Beach, hiked Coetzenberg mountain in Stellenbosch, went surfing at Muizenberg beach, and visited the Franschhoek wine region. 

Other notable excursions and experiences since have been touring Robben Island led by an ex-political prisoner who was imprisoned there, exploring the Bo-Kaap region of Cape Town, meeting South Africans, and attending a Braai and learning Sokkie (traditional Afrikaans customs).

The largest culture shocks so far surround the South African concept of time, resource availability, and the wealth inequality. 


South African time consists of now, now-now, and just now. Now refers to sometime in the next five to ten minutes, now-now is sometime in the next thirty minutes to two hours, and just now ranges from four hours to four months. In the small town of Stellenbosch, all shops and even grocery stores close around 5:00 PM on weekdays and 2:00PM on Sunday. While the convenience of having things open and working around the clock in the States is nice, it is so refreshing to be in a culture that values relaxation and family time over getting work done. No one here is in a rush and they have faith and confidence that what needs to be done will be done in due time, but the priority is enjoying life at the present. 

Stellenbosch is one of the richest areas in South Africa and is rich in Afrikaans culture. However, that does not mean that it is exempt from resource shortages and power outages. Load shedding, or rotating blackouts, are quite common. Randomly, you will be walking down the street or sitting in a room and all of the lights and electrical appliances go out. Typically, this period lasts anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, but it is still hard adjusting. There is also limited service and wifi available on campus and there was a typhoid outbreak from tap water, but it has been easy adjusting to bottled water and limited service. The locals treat every load shed/outbreak/etc. like any other typical day. In the US, I often take for granted consistent power, good wifi during my school day, and especially accessible clean water. 

The wealth inequality is more drastic than I originally thought. The lasting effects of the apartheid are extremely obvious, even in the drive from the airport. There are large townships with some of the world's poorest populations next to the richest in the country. The starkest example I can give is that next to a township where people do not always know where their next meal is from, there was a gas station with people in their Bentley’s and Lamborghini’s. You drive looking at wine farms and spread out estates one second to densely populated areas with shacks for homes the next. The racial divide is extremely apparent and they are working to lessen the effects of apartheid in the present time. 

While I am here, I am able to volunteer at an after school program called Songo in the Kayamandi township where I tutor 4th-6th grades in math and science. Unfortunately, their education system is extremely behind the United States and many of these kids struggle with basic arithmetic at the same age kids in the States begin learning complex algebra and geometry. While abroad, I hope to help kids better conceptualize numbers so that they can begin understanding math and other complex topics to help them progress in their schooling. 

Overall, I absolutely love it here so far. There is such extreme cultural diversity and activities around every corner. Stellenbosch University does education very differently than Notre Dame which has also been a large adjustment, but worth the uncomfort. 

March 2022


Greetings from Mauritius! This past week, I have been on spring break from Stellenbosch University and took advantage of the location proximity by going to Mauritius for the week. While here, we have enjoyed meeting the locals and tasting their cuisine. There is a large Hindu community here with beautiful temples and colors all over the island. The water is insanely clear and warm and definitely a bucket list trip for me.

Before spring break, Stellenbosch engineering had exam week which is similar to finals in the US. For a week and a half, no engineer had classes, only exams with a weird and specific schedule based on your school year. Exam week is very rigid and professors are not allowed to move exams for students. There are three exam weeks total throughout the semester, the first one (A1) happens before spring break, and then A2 and A3 happen after classes end in June. Every course is different, but typically students have to pass 2/3 of the exams, so A3 is often not necessary. 



Outside of academics, I took an Indian cooking class in Cape Town, hiked Jonkershoek, saw baboons at Kogel Bay, watched my first South African rugby game, and got to play Plakkie ball. Plakkie ball is a South African version of dodgeball where you throw flip flops at each other and is part of one woman residence’s ‘Res Week’ (similar to SYR/formal week). It has been so fun and insightful exploring parts of Cape Town and Stellenbosch and learning about their traditions and customs. One surprise is that they do not really celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and have a national public holiday for Human Rights Day! It has been cool learning about the small things I didn’t expect to be different from the US, like small holidays and flip-flop dodgeball.

Volunteering at Songo has continued to go well and is one of my favorite parts of my week. There is a super sweet girl who is so good at math. She finishes her worksheets in half the time it takes the other kids and challenges herself to do lessons ahead of what she has been taught. She proudly told me she got a 100% on the quiz she had to take last week.

One thing I find extremely unfair is that these children speak Xhosa and are having to learn in English. When I learned Spanish, I took for granted that my Spanish books all had direct English translations in the same book, making it an easy way to learn. Xhosa does not have the same luxury and I have not found any English learning book that has both Xhosa and English translations. Without knowing Xhosa, I was trying to explain words they did not understand in a language they did not know. In the future, I would love to help with any initiative that allows Xhosa to be widely accepted in schools. It is completely unfair that these young kids struggle so much with their education because they are taught in a language that they do not know in their home country. I am so lucky to have been raised with English as my first language, but that advantage is pure chance and these kids should not be punished for speaking a different language. 



I get to volunteer with other international kids and have learned so much about educational differences around the world. The grading standard, number of credits, and number of classes are so different in every country. Most of the international students also take gap years or take a year to serve in their country’s military. One of my favorite parts of being abroad is meeting new friends every day. Notre Dame’s campus definitely feels like a family, but it has been extremely refreshing not knowing every face on every corner. There is more time and space in Stellenbosch to be by yourself and enjoy the incredible weather. Each week, I am able to hike, swim, run, and relax in the sunshine which is my favorite thing to do.

 Looking ahead, I am looking forward to going to an Afrikaans music festival in Cape Town, volunteering, and more surfing!  


After landing in Cape Town after Mauritius, I realized how much this place is starting to feel like home. The short week away was enough time for me to miss South Africa. On the drive back from the airport, I was able to recognize streets and monuments and noted how different it
was since the first time I did the drive, having just arrived, extremely jet lagged, and so unfamiliar with the world around me. It felt like I was driving back to a place I had been so many times before, when in reality, I had only lived there a month.

There is no place more beautiful than South Africa. Stellenbosch is surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges and a beautiful coastline. My weekly routine has evolved to include surfing at least once a week with my Finnish roommate Mari, hiking part of Coetzenberg mountain, and visiting and eating at a different wine farm. The overall culture is extremely laid back and chill.

I made some South African friends in my chemical engineering classes and was invited to a festival with my friend Mieke. She graciously let me stay at her house over the weekend where I got to meet her family (which included 4 adorable dogs and 3 cats). It was so nice being in a
house again, experiencing a family dynamic and petting animals. We went to a festival called Liefde by die Dam which was entirely in Afrikaans making it a very interesting but cool experience for me. I was worried I would be completely out of my comfort zone, especially being surrounded by new people in a language I don’t understand, but it ended up being a really fun time where I got to learn some Afrikaans phrases and made some new friends.

Along with a group of Notre Dame students, I did a 6 hour hike up to the top peak of a nearby mountain and took in the breathtaking 360 views which was a perfect setup for the upcoming Easter weekend. I am not typically a homesick person, however, holidays away from home always remind me that I miss my family and traditions. To beat the homesickness, I found a way to incorporate my home traditions to South Africa and have a typical Easter starting with outdoor Mass at the Catholic Church, a long, multi-course brunch at a beautiful estate, a long nature walk, and a big family style dinner. It is crazy how much the friends I have made abroad have started to feel like family and celebrating Easter together was no exception.

Academically, the school is very different from Notre Dame. The classes meet at different frequencies and have less assignments with more weight on exams which has allowed for me to focus more on enjoying the course material and absorbing the information, rather than crunching
weekly to meet deadlines. My favorite course is Biome Ecology where I get to learn about the different biomes in South Africa and get to look at the flora, fauna, and wildlife around me in a new light. The professors are experts at all things conservation and ecology which encourages
me to better appreciate the world around me. I have been working on a project for this class about the African Elephant which has inspired me to pursue a research project on safari in Kruger National Park. I would love to get a more indepth, personal look at the elephants and
their role as a keystone species and ecological engineer. They are major contributors to water redistribution and redefining territories, biomes, and biodiversity.

The highlight of my time here continues to be my weekly volunteering at Songo. The kids are absolutely amazing and have started opening up and are much more comfortable with us week after week. Their academic skills are obviously progressing, but it is still upsetting to me to
know that they are behind the standard in United States schools and even other schools in Stellenbosch, but am so proud to see how hard the kids try to progress their skills week after week.

Signing off for now because I am en route to Safari in Kruger! I will check back in with (hopefully) lots of animal stories soon.


Safari was an absolute dream. It is hard to accurately describe the beauty, experience, and excitement of being so close to such diverse wildlife and almost completely immersed in nature while learning so much about ecology and keystone species. I went with a professor of conservation ecology that has spent months of his life in Kruger National Park, working directly with the veterinary department. As a result, I was able to stay in the Veterinary Camp that is not open to the public and meet and learn from the head of mammalian studies for Kruger National Park. Through open conservation with these experts and having the opportunity for them to guide me around the park, I learned an immense amount about the animals, history, and environment of Kruger with a specific emphasis on the African Elephant. While on Safari, I was
able to see all of the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, and buffalo) along with a cheetah, wildebeest, warthog, hyena, genet, kudu, impala, zebra, hippos, crocodiles, and tons of birds and other animals. At night, we would sit around the campfire (in an enclosed camp) and listen to the sounds of the animals coming alive around us which was a crazy experience to realize how deep into the bush you are.

A repeated phrase from family and friends that I sent photos to was that they were so excited I was enjoying this ‘once in a lifetime’ trip. I have heard that phrase a thousand times over, but I never thought of the possibility that these experiences don’t have to be once in a
lifetime. For many South Africans, the reality of Kruger, surfing, hiking, and prioritizing conservation are part of their daily/yearly lives in some capacity which sounds incredible. I hope to incorporate some of the lessons and habits when I am back to the states, whether it's as large
as moving to a new state or country or as small as noting animals on a daily walk.

After Safari over public holiday, I jumped back into my studies and volunteering, preparing for the upcoming exam weeks. Unlike finals at Notre Dame, finals are spread out over a three week period and then have an extra exam period for students that did not pass. Load
shedding has been more frequent, making studying a bit difficult without lights, wifi, or computer chargers. While I have always been aware how fortunate I am to have access to water and electricity, I have become much more grateful for consistent power specifically related to my
university experience. School is very difficult without power, especially amidst the end of a pandemic in which certain classes are still entirely online.

Outside of my safari and studying, I have continued surfing with my Finnish roommate, touring Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, hiking in nearby mountains, and enjoying the diversity of Cape Town. Cape Town is extremely vibrant and a blend of so many different cultures with
incredible hikes, beaches, restaurants, and rugby. A bucket list item on my trip was attending a game in the DHL Stadium which was built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The Stormers (Cape Town team) had a rugby game against Edinborough and won in the playoffs. It was a very fun
atmosphere and cool to watch professional rugby in a stadium I remember watching on TV growing up in a country that seemed so far away and out of my grasp.

This experience abroad is coming to an end and I am so grateful and thankful for this experience. The friendships I formed with the other Notre Dame students, the other international students, and my new South African friends will hopefully remain with me for the rest of my
life. I have learned so much about other cultures, education systems, crises, wildlife, and life advice being surrounded by so many varying perspectives. South Africa will always have my heart and I am counting down days until I can return. Dankie Stellies vir 'n baie lekker tyd!