Mariah Silvah

Hello, my name is Mariah. I am majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology here at UC Santa Cruz. During my undergraduate career, I conducted field research in the breathtaking habitats of Costa Rica, South Africa, and Malawi. As a first-generation college student from a low-income family, these adventures were a treasure beyond imagination that would not have been possible without access to financial aid and well-crafted programs through UCSC Global Learning and UCEAP. During my study abroad experiences, I encountered challenges that tested not only my academic prowess but also my identity and resilience as a woman traveling alone in what were often perceived as dangerous environments. 

My first foray into studying abroad occurred in the Spring of 2022 when I embarked on a plane to Costa Rica through the UCEAP Tropical Biology and Conservation program. Amidst heartbreak, exhaustion, and insufferable bug bites, I discovered the world of tropical biology. Spending three months hiking through the cloud forests of Monteverde, I conducted an independent field research project on the maternal behaviors of Capuchin monkeys. As I delved into this scientific inquiry, I found myself undergoing a journey of change and growth, mirroring the evolutionary processes I observed in the natural world. As the young capuchins developed from infancy to independence, so did I. By the end of the program, I emerged with a newfound confidence in my academic abilities and a rekindled desire to explore the world beyond familiar borders.

Nearly a year later, I found myself hiking along the mountainous countryside of South Africa, embarking on another chapter of my study abroad adventure. Studying at the University of Cape Town proved to be a challenging yet enriching experience. The time zone difference made communication with loved ones back home difficult, leading to moments of loneliness and isolation. However, amidst the solitude was laying in wait the greatest inner exploration of my life. Discovering the warmth and hospitality of the locals made all the difference. Immersing myself in the diverse cultures and landscapes of South Africa, I studied Xhosa—a language rich in history and tradition—and forged lifelong friendships that deepened my understanding of humanity’s interconnectedness.

Navigating the complexities of cultural immersion, I confronted inner stereotypes and preconceived notions, emerging more open-minded and aware. While learning as much as I could about the local languages in Cape Town, I discovered the South African philosophy of “Ubuntu”—commonly translated as “I am; therefore, we are.”—which resonated deeply with me. This change in perspective challenged me to rethink my place in the world and the responsibilities that come with it. Shifting my mindset from the highly individualistic mode that is required of those living in the United States to one focused on survival through community was deeply healing. On the streets of Cape Town, I was referred to kindly as “usisi wam” or “my sister”. This language change showed me that there are places in the world where the bonds of family stretch far beyond genealogical lines. It made me feel so at home. 

However, it was on these same streets that I learned the limits of my safety as a solo traveling woman. For the first couple of months, I wasn’t able to walk anywhere by myself. A combination of social anxiety, culture shock, and fear of being harassed while I was alone in public kept me trapped within the walls of my apartment and school. As someone who is used to going on long hikes through the woods at UCSC to clear my mind at any hour of the day, it was extremely difficult to cope with these new constraints. Getting involved with a backpacking club at the University of Cape Town was a huge game changer. I was able to sign up for events that took me all across the countryside and coastline with other college students who yearned for the outdoors. It meant protection, health, and freedom. As the months went on, I also got to know the neighborhood around my apartment which not only increased my sense of safety but made me feel more connected to the community around me. I was told to ignore the men and women who lived on the street outside of the CampusKey resident building when I first arrived in the country. I did not heed this advice. I found that acknowledging the humanity of my neighbors and sharing what I could with them during the winter months kept all of us warm and protected when it was truly needed. 

Through the classes I took at UCT and my dear friends I made while abroad, I was taught the multitudes of South Africa. The rainbow nation contains animal skins and luxury cars, poverty and wealth, and contemporary and traditional lifestyles. There is no single story of this rich nation. If you stand still in the courtyard of UCT for five minutes you will hear a buzzing symphony of more languages than you can count spoken by people who come from all reaches of the world. It was here in South Africa that the full diversity of the human experience became my reality. 

After living and studying at the University of Cape Town for six months, I met with a band of fellow biology students from the UC system in Johannesburg. In the Summer of 2023, my journey continued through the UCSC Global Seminar: Evolution and Fish Biology in Southern Africa. We began our exploration of South African wildlife at a lush quiet lavender farm in Pretoria. Relaxed lectures on hominid evolution and delicious food were a welcome respite after a long adventure. During this time we got to know one another as a group as we took field trips to places like the Cradle of Humanity. This site of human history was absolutely mind-blowing. We drove through hilly grasslands in a converted safari truck bed and witnessed the majesty of zebra, giraffes, kudu, and so many roaming herds of wildebeests. African megafauna really hits differently from anything I have ever seen. However, this sense of pure unadulterated wild was no match for what we experienced in Kruger National Park. Elephants, lions, hippos, and buffalo (also known as the black death) humbled me with their graceful ferocity and immense scale. It was like stepping into a nature documentary and coming out with a completely different take on what it means to be alive. 

Malawi was a whole new wild landscape beneath the water. Conducting research on cichlids, we marveled at their dazzling colors and fascinating social patterns. Diving into their world made me question what we think we know about animal behavior and the methods we use to comprehend the actions of other species. From above, Lake Malawi appears to be a monolithic clear slate of water, yet below the surface, there is an endlessly intricate ecosystem. The town of Cape McClear at the edge of the lake had a similar quality in my heart. We were traveling there as tourists and scientists, but none of us knew the language of the local people or much about the cultural history of this place. Laughing and playing soccer with the school children in the area made it feel as though there was no barrier to sharing the experience of humanity. However, when I looked into the eyes of the merchants and fishermen on the streets, I was rocked by the deep realization that my presence in this place affected their lives and their economy. How harmful was my ignorance? What is the best way to exist in a community that is not your own? From this experience, I learned that certain terrains do not belong to my perception. All I know of this lakeside town is what lay on the surface. 

While I reflect on my study abroad experiences, I carry with me a renewed sense of purpose and a commitment to fostering cultural awareness, understanding, and respect in all aspects of my life. My journey as a young independent woman studying abroad has taught me that true growth stems from embracing discomfort and seeking sincere connections with others, regardless of geographical or linguistic boundaries. As I continue on my path, I am dedicated to incorporating these lessons into my life and treading lightly in a world of boundless multiplicity.

Last modified: Jun 04, 2024