From RSA to USA

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Once upon time there was a young fair maiden named Palesa Lebona, who lived in a kingdom called the Capital. She enjoyed participating in duels and training in fiery gauntlets with the fire-breathing dragons at Knights of the Capital. She also enjoyed working as an apprentice at the House of Wizards.

Having written the Kingdom matric exam, she knew that the time had come for her to make one of the toughest decisions, which would shape the rest of her life – namely Choosing the Path. At the age of 18, all maidens and masters of the kingdom are summoned to the Royal Court where they have to make the choice of either being a knight or wizard. Once the choice is made, there is no turning back.

 Palesa Lebona
Palesa Lebona
Confused and unsure of which path to take, Palesa lay restless in her bed, unable to sleep the night before the ceremony. During the night she was paid a visit by one of the wizards, Wizard Zee. Wizard Zee told Palesa of a kingdom faraway where possibilities were endless and where you could be both a Knight and a Wizard. Palesa, taken aback by this new information, had her reservations and was not too sure if such a place did in fact truly exist. To ease Palesas reservations, Wizard Zee presented her with two magical mirrors and an incantation.

These mirrors would allow her to simultaneously travel to a land called the USA and the Capital Kingdom in the future, where she could experience both worlds as a student; however at the stroke of midnight she would be transported back to the Capital Kingdom, to her bed and hopefully be able to make her final decision. Palesa thanked the wizard and took the magical mirrors and incantation. She began reciting the incantationMirror mirror of the night, take me to this place of sight, faraway it may be, let this distant land become the future for me. Palesa was then transported to the USA and embarked on her studies in Filmmaking in Los Angeles.

At this point some readers may either be wondering what on earth does a fairy tale have to do with my experience of studying abroad and what impact did it have on my career? The answer is ‘Attitude’ and being open-minded.

Throughout primary school and high school, I always had a competitive spirit and lived with the notion that the “world is your oyster” – but in University this energy slowly started to dwindle. As the years went by, the aim was no longer to get good grades but to merely pass and attain my degree so that I would be in a position to get a job and start earning a living. Amongst my peers there was this unsaid attitude of studying to pass, as opposed to studying to learn.  I believe that this attitude stems from the evaluation process and reward system.

As far as evaluation goes, in the USA you have to make every single day count and work hard consistently, not only because your lecturers are evaluating you each and every day across various parameters (i.e. participation, attendance, homework etc.) which go towards your final grade, but because these parameters yield considerable more weight  in your final grade than tests and exams. In South Africa, my experience was the exact opposite, in that exams and tests accounted for far more than projects.

Whilst on the subject of reward systems, I have always believed that people will go the extra mile because of one important factor: reward. Whether it’s in the form of acknowledgment (from others or yourself) or accolades, a reward system motivates and drives people to work harder and improve themselves.

Whilst studying in South Africa I felt as though there was no visible reward system to congratulate and acknowledge students on their achievements on a semester basis. Instead, accolades were only granted at the end of their tertiary education, once they had completed their qualification. In the US one is placed on what is called a Deans List where the Dean of the university congratulates your excellent academic performance per semester.

Prior to the process of evaluation and reward, a rather daunting decision is forcefully made by many South African Matriculants , including the maiden Palesa in the fairy tale: Choosing a Path i.e. choosing a degree. Looking back, I can truly say that at the age of 18 I was only on the starting block as far as my journey called Life was concerned.  I had not even begun to discover the world, nor grasp who I truly was as an individual, yet I had to choose a degree that would dictate the rest of my career.

Once I had decided upon my B.Comm Degree in Marketing and was in my second year, I felt innately forced to stick with it regardless of whether or not I was happy with it, struggling with various subjects or even struggling with the course as a whole. I felt completely despondent as there was no way of going back on my decision or even tweaking it. The reasons for this were as follows:


  1. I would have to start my new qualification of choice from scratch, which meant an additional 3 years, which adds up to a total 5 years spent in university. Not an option.
  2. Most degrees are geared towards making individuals numerical, scientific or creative. For people who are both right and left- brained such as myself, we found ourselves boxed into careers which did not always give room for the other side of the brain to be utilized and felt as though we never truly fitted in.

Although a degree in the US takes 4 years to complete, it allows flexibility for one to change their mind and amend their course, as you only start to specialize in your chosen field during your third year. Additionally, you are also given the option of choosing the areas where you would like to specialize, regardless of whether they are in two completely different industries e.g. entertainment and finance.

I firmly believe that this attributes to the Go-Getter attitude and Open-minded outlook which many scholars in the US possess. This contagious attitude rubs off on you and makes you believe that you are the master of your own destiny and are in control of your future. I began to once again believe that the world indeed was my oyster and mine for the taking. I believe this positive notion also stems from the fact that in most cases the basic needs of food, shelter and safety have been met. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many people in South Africa who worry about where their next meal is going to come from and are not living in the best conditions. I am of the opinion that this creates a sense of despondency for many parents who consequently pass on this ‘No hope and no room for future possibilitiesattitude to their children.

The aim of my article is not to bash South Africa’s tertiary education but to highlight potential problems, which currently exist in the system – and look at possibly rectifying them in the near future. My other aim is to highlight the importance of travel to foreign countries, whether it’s Lesotho within our country, our neighbouring country of Botswana or even across the ocean to the US. Travel unlocks exposure which in turn opens your eyes to the world and helps you grow in your understanding of the world and of yourself as a person. Through travel, one is stripped away of all that is familiar to them and gets taken out of their comfort zone. Whether you are maiden or master in your country, I believe that you can be both a wizard as well as a knight – it’s all about attitude, being open-minded, working hard consistently and exposing yourself to the world and all the opportunities it has to offer.


By: Palesa Lebona
Age: 28
Current Occupation: MFA Filmaking student; The New York Film Academy
Qualifications: BComm Marketing Management; BComm Logistics Management (Honours), University of Johannesburg

All images provided by Palesa Lebona

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