Part 3: Mandela, Robben Island, & Reading Before You Travel

International students at MSU have taken a big step to study so far away from their home countries. In addition, MSU is one of the leading schools for study abroad in the United States. I’ve studied abroad twice now as well as traveled extensively on my own to over 25 countries. If there is one thing that I have learned through my travels, it is that your experience is significantly more fulfilling if you learn as much as you can about your destination before you go. This could range from simple history in Lonely Planet guides to first-hand accounts of life in the country from famous authors or figures. My recent visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for decades, reaffirmed this belief.

Having finished our team’s work at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, we took a quick two hour flight to the west of the country to visit Cape Town. Cape Town is a beautiful city nestled in between Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean. While Cape Town is an amazing place it also has a dark side. Just a 45 minute ferry ride away is Robben Island, the place where hundreds of political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were held during apartheid and subjected to forced labor and demeaning treatment.

Our group was lucky enough to be able to visit Robben Island with one its most famous former prisoners, Eddie Daniels. For 15 years Daniels was imprisoned on the island alongside Nelson Mandela and is a friend of MSU, having spoken at our university several times. We were truly lucky as he took us away from the normal tour and crowds and gave us unprecedented access including the opportunity to walk right into Mandela’s cell (you normally just get to see it from behind bars.) I was truly moved by the experience as I heard Daniels provide first-hand accounts of his time on the island. Taken on its own I may have not had such a moving experience, however I had done reading on the island beforehand.

By reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom I was able to experience Robben Island in an entirely different way than if I hadn’t done any reading at all. Walking into the prison courtyard and the limestone mine where Mandela labored for so many years brought me back to Mandela’s accounts of the monotonous labor he had to endure day in and day out. Additionally, by understanding the history of apartheid I was able to put everything into proper context. The experience reaffirmed the value in this prior research.

MSU is one of the leading universities in the country that sends both its domestic and international students abroad and I encourage you take advantage of this fact (click here for the Office of Study Abroad at MSU). If you do leave MSU to study somewhere else for a semester or even a year, the rewards are so much greater if you take a little time to understand a location before you walk through customs and immigration.

Zach Tobin is a second-year graduate student in Student Affairs Administration at MSU’s College of Education. Zach was born in Seattle, WA and has had the privilege to travel throughout the world including stints in Central America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle  East. Along with traveling, Zach’s interests include higher education policy and Eastern European history and politics. Zach also serves as a Programming Intern at the Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS).