Alec Hogan


Stanford in Cape Town, Winter Quarter 2014-15
Major: International Relations
College year while abroad: Junior


Why did you choose to study abroad in Cape Town?

My decision to study abroad in Cape Town was directly tied to my personal and academic interests surrounding race, politics, urban studies and African history, as well as my desire to explore the natural beauty of the city and surrounding areas. The Cape Town program’s focus on social justice and engaging in ethical and effective service sets it apart from other Stanford study abroad programs. In addition, Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. In and around the city are some of the most beautiful hikes, biking routes, beaches and farmlands in the world.

What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Cape Town?

If you have ever talked to any BOSP Cape Town alumni and inquired about their experience, they will tell you the extent to which it impacted the course of their Stanford career. For me, my experience in Cape Town was an indispensible component of my Stanford education. Prior to studying in Cape Town, I expected to learn and to grow a lot, personally and academically. However, I did not expect to experience such a prolonged period of discomfort during my time there. Part of my decision to study abroad in three different places (Beijing, Madrid and Cape Town) was to learn to overcome discomfort in foreign environments. Compared to my other study abroad experiences, my time in Cape Town was a more challenging, reflective, and ultimately, more impactful experience.   

What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Cape Town?

The crux of the Cape Town program is learning to think critically not only about social, political and economic issues but also about the issues that surround your person and presence in the country. The program is an incredibly immersive academic experience. The community-based learning partnerships offer practical experiences and insights into the inequality that persists in the country. They, too, bring to light the problems with service-learning and short-term volunteering. Every conversationin class, at work and on the streetsis an opportunity to learn about South Africa and yourself. While the Stanford courses offered are a great resource to learn while in Cape Town, I found myself learning a whole lot through the conversations I had with fellow Stanford students and friends at Beth Uriel as well. The unique thing about Cape Town is that you are constantly learning and asking questions, not matter where you are or what you are doing. 

What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?

Over the course of my time abroad, and especially my experience in Cape Town, I was exposed to different social and political structures and ways of living that impacted my understanding of the world and my place within it. Studying abroad further contributed to my knowledge of the similarities and differences between cultures, both in terms of individual identities and societal structures. I learned through first-hand experiences and conversations about different histories and modern struggles on the African continent. In delving into these different spaces, I emerged more aware of my own identity, the privileges that come with that identity, persisting social issues and my personal responsibility to work towards social justice.   

What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?

The most challenging component of my time abroad was learning how to be physically and mentally present abroad while maintaining my relationships, roles and responsibilities to my family, friends and communities back home. It can be a difficult experience realizing that, although you are living and learning abroad, life at home and at school does not stop. Problems will inevitably come up, and quite a few did during my time abroad. Through experiencing and overcoming these unexpected circumstances abroad, I learned how to better manage my time and presence between the place I am in and the places I am from. I am now a better communicator and a more reliable friend, family member and student.   

How was your experience living with local families? 

The Cape Town program is different from other programs in that there is not a homestay component. Rather, students live together in a complex of a few houses. Coming from studying abroad in Madrid where I was able to develop a close relationship with my host family, living without a homestay was a bittersweet feeling. I was happy to have a little more independence, however I missed the space for learning my homestay in Madrid provided. Because there is not a homestay in Cape Town, it is important to actively seek out opportunities to spend time with people outside of the Stanford community. 

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?

The biggest cultural adjustment I had to make was learning to understand the different racial identities in Cape Town. The difference between Coloured and Black in the context of South Africa is rooted in history. To understand these identities, it takes learning about that complex history and hearing stories from different generations of South Africans.

What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Cape Town?

My favorite momentsthe most vivid, visceral images in my memorywere the times where I glanced up to Table Mountain and was forced to stop and stare. Every single time I was left awestruck by the natural beauty that towered over life in Cape Town. From the
ominous cloud cover to the striking dusk light, ‘The Mountain Rising from the Sea’ took
on a life of its own, and each time I gazed up it took my breath away.  

What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Cape Town?

The first experience that comes to mind is the Three Peaks Challenge. The challenge is to climb to the top of Devil’s Peak, then Table Mountain, and finally, Lion’s Head in the light between dawn an dusk of one day. My friends and I finished the Three Peaks Challenge on the very last weekend of the Cape Town program. We had hiked each of the peaks previously in the program, but we left the challenge for the end of our time in Cape Town. The daylong venture was a way of experiencing all of the beauty Cape Town offers and a necessary time for reflection on the pest 10 weeks of life in South Africa. It was arduous, stunning and meditative, and I will never forget it. 

What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?

Most formative experience at Stanford. 

What service learning or community based research projects did you take advantage of?

 studied in Cape Town during winter of my junior year. There are additional research projects available for students who choose to study in Cape Town for more than one quarter, however because of the single quarter constraint, my community based learning partnership at Beth Uriel was the extent of my service learning experience in Cape Town.  

What advice would you give to someone who was considering studying abroad in Cape Town?

My advice to someone considering studying abroad in Cape Town would be to do your best to acquaint yourself with South Africa and the other students/staff you will be traveling to Cape Town with. Cape Town can be overwhelming. Delving into South Africa’s history and its contemporary political dynamic, as well as beginning to form a cohesive, supportive Stanford in Cape Town community prior to hitting the ground running will result in a more positive, impactful overall experience.  

If you had to do it all over again what would you do differently?

If I could do Cape Town all over again, I would do two things: stay longer and rent a scooter. There is so much to learn and see in South Africa. I felt three months was just enough time to scrape the surface of South Africa’s complex history and beautiful natural landscape. With more time (and a convenient mode of transportation) I would have been able to do more, see more and learn more.  

How has the experienced changed or enhanced your future academic and career goals?

As an International Relations major with specializations in Social Development and Human Well-Being and African Studies, I saw studying abroad in Cape Town as an integral component to my undergraduate education. With the experience now behind me in the course of my academic career at Stanford, I can now say that it was the most influential part of my undergraduate experience. My time in Cape Town solidified the fact that to truly understand a placea culture, history and societyyou have to experience it first-hand. After three months in Cape Town, I am by no means an expert; I left with more questions and uncertainties than I came with. However, I did leave with a greater understanding of South Africa and my place within it, and an enhanced ability to ask questions and think critically. I am now a more critical academic and conscious citizen because of my time in Cape Town.

What was your favorite food you had in Cape Town?

My favorite restaurant, without a doubt, is Café Paradiso. It is the first restaurant I stumbled upon in Cape Town. After WWOOFing for two weeks in the Karoo before the program, which was the most isolating, physically exhausting experience of my life, I walked into to this café after 6+ hours on a mini bus taxi. There are so many good restaurants in Cape Town, but because of this story and how delicious the food was after two weeks of eating corn porridge and cabbage and carrots, Café Paradiso has a special place in my memory.  

What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?

Because Cape Town was the last stop on my seven-month study abroad venture, my journal, which I had been writing in every day since my red eye flight to Beijing, became my most valuable item. My memories, revelations and experiences live on in the friendships I made, the photos and videos I took and in that journal I carried with me.  

What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Cape Town?

It was not so much a distinct artist or genre of music, but a music venue. While you will only be able to experience it if you go to Cape Town in the winter, the Kirstenbosch Summer Concerts are some of my favorite memories during my time in Cape Town. Kirstenbosch itself is gorgeous, and the park turns into an outdoor music venue on Sundays in the summer. The park hosts various local and international artists at the base of Devil’s Peak. It is a great place to spend a Sunday if your staying in Cape Town for the winter!