Laila Ghamdi ’19 is one of seven Fountain Valley School of Colorado students traveling on Round Square exchanges this year. Ghamdi left for Saint Stithians School in Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 5 and now heads to Herlufsholm School near Copenhagen, Denmark. FVS hosted five Round Square students from across the world during the winter quarter. FVS has been a member of Round Square since 2013. Ghamdi shares her South African experience with us here.
On the morning I arrived in the Johannesburg airport after more than 29 hours of traveling, I felt nervous, excited, sleepy and in need of a shower. The prospect of meeting my exchange family for the first time left me nearly shaking as I walked through the glass doors to greet them in person. Gabi, my exchange partner (who will come to FVS in the fall), ran to hug me and handed me balloons, chocolates, a stuffed bear and a letter. I relaxed immediately.
As I settled in with Gabi, her family and Joburg during the first week, I began to feel like her sister and an extra child. Her mother, Gorette, and her father, Miguel, are the most welcoming and kind people I have ever met: they have ensured that I fully immerse myself in South African culture and wholly experience Joburg and Cape Town during my short six weeks. I attend Saint Stithians Girls College, an all-girls day school. For classes and after school activities, I have almost the same schedule as Gabi, who shares my same interests—the only difference is I am in French instead of drama class. The new courses and extracurriculars for me have been Afrikaans and netball; when Saints students learn that netball and Afrikaans aren’t common in the U.S., it shocks them quite a bit.
Already, I have been to an animal reserve where I’ve touched baby lions and cheetahs, fed giraffes, and felt an ostrich try to bite me for my sparkly bracelet! I’ve toured all of Joburg, and the contrast between each neighborhood astounds me. I’ve been to Cape Town which has a beautiful coast, penguin beaches and the newly named eighth natural wonder of the world—Table Mountain.
However, my favorite activity in Cape Town was paragliding over the city and ocean. This past weekend, I stayed at a game lodge (the bush) and woke up every morning at 4:30 a.m, to spot animals, which was completely worth it—elephants, lions, buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, springbok, monkeys and my personal favorite: warthogs.
One of the most important lessons gained in my four weeks so far is the pride and love with how the general population views South Africa. Despite its turbulent history, South Africans strive to produce a country that is more accepting, modern and progressive. The most common question I have been asked since I’ve arrived is “Did you think people would ride elephants to school and that you would have to live in the bush?” While I did not in fact believe that South Africa would be solely bush, free of any industrialized areas, I believe there is a stigma and stereotyping around Africa that is constantly felt by all Africans.
Regardless of microcosmic differences, I believe it is important to focus on the many values and experiences that tie us together globally; exchange programs such as Round Square promote these shared values of a united global community/education. This Round Square exchange has been a mind-opening, amazing opportunity that I simply can’t say enough praise about and that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
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