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Mai Ly Burke

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Mai Ly Burke (she/her) - Stanford in Cape Town

Major: Biology

Minor: Psychology

College year while abroad: Junior

About the photo: This is a selfie I took during a trip to Cape Point with a couple of people in my cohort! In the background, you can see the beautiful cliffs of the most South-Western point of the African continent and the lush flora of the area.


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Why did you choose to study in Cape Town?

Cape Town offered a unique opportunity to explore South Africa, a place I might not have visited otherwise. While I had exposure to various cultures from other study abroad options, African cultures were relatively uncharted territory for me. Cape Town's blend of adventure, nature, history, and rich culture was irresistible. Not to mention the affordability of everything there! I was able to experience something new every day, from surfing and paragliding to hiking and cooking Cape Malay food. It was the perfect chance to leave my comfort zone and learn about a part of the world unfamiliar to me.

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

My expectations before arriving in Cape Town were quite different from what I experienced. I expected the city to be dangerous, but with the right precautions, it felt safe much like any other city. I thought load shedding would feel much more disruptive than it ended up being. Making friends with locals turned out to be a lot easier than I thought, thanks to our student residence's social spaces and the friendly Cape Town students. Surprisingly, I also formed close friendships with my entire cohort and the program staff, making it a truly memorable and enriching experience.

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

Studying in Cape Town offered many academic benefits. I explored a variety of subjects that I would not normally have, including theater, archaeology, and global development, making me a more well-rounded person. Taking classes with professors from the University of Cape Town exposed me to different teaching styles and perspectives, broadening my worldview. Additionally, I participated in an organizational project that led to an exciting internship with a biodesign startup, providing invaluable professional experience and exposure to the biotech field beyond the US. I was even able to meet and connect with world leaders in medicine and global development!

What did you learn about yourself while studying abroad?

I learned valuable lessons about independence and adventure. I learned both how rewarding I find developing new friendships to be, as well as a love for solo exploration and learned how to do so safely, building confidence in navigating new places and meeting new people. Balancing academic and personal life effectively became a skill, and I was proud of myself for making the most of the opportunity to explore such an incredible city.

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

The most challenging experience in Cape Town was witnessing the widespread racial economic disparity and poverty. It was emotionally taxing to see people in need daily. Navigating feelings of guilt, pity, and anger was challenging, but I learned the importance of helping responsibly while prioritizing personal safety. I realized that I couldn't single-handedly solve these complex issues, but I could help through small acts of generosity and kindness, like donating clothes and blankets.

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?

The biggest cultural adjustment was being a minority for the first time in Cape Town after growing up surrounded by an abundance of Asian people in Vietnam. I encountered occasional micro-aggressions like people greeting me with “Ni hao!”, despite the fact that I’m not Chinese, and learned to handle them gracefully. This adjustment pushed me out of my comfort zone, exposing me to new cultures and perspectives. While I missed Asian food and culture, I was able to fully immerse myself in a completely new cultural landscape and learn about the richness of South African cultures!

What was your favorite part of everyday life?

My favorite part of everyday life in Cape Town was the ease at which I could escape into the most breathtaking nature to unwind after class, whether it be at the beach or on a mountain. This was followed by affordable yet delicious meals. The way I was able to enjoy the city's incredible thrift stores and restaurants like Cocoa Cha Chi between classes also was a highlight of everyday life!

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

While I made many special memories in Cape Town, one of my favorites was towards the start of the quarter when I embarked on a sunset yacht cruise with my entire cohort. Priced affordably at just $30 per person, it offered breathtaking views of Table Mountain and the city skyline. We lounged on catamaran nets, sipped champagne, and watched sea lions trail behind us. Dancing the Macarena with Cape Town locals as we sailed into the sunset created unforgettable memories and bonds between our group. I highly recommend this experience as a group activity to kickstart your Cape Town experience!

What 5 words would you use to describe the experience?

Adventure, friendship, culture, nature, and growth.

What was your favorite food?

My favorite food in Cape Town was bobotie. This is a South African dish, made with perfectly seasoned ground beef and a creamy topping. Eating it feels like a warm, delicious hug in your mouth. Honorable mentions go to Gatsby sandwiches, Cape Malay curry, and the fish and chips from Kalk Bay.

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

The most valuable item I took with me on the program was my hefty portable charger that can also charge my laptop. It was essential during load shedding when I needed to work on assignments and maintain communication. I would highly recommend getting one before you go!

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

Cape Town introduced me to the vibrant world of Afrobeats and Amapiano music. I discovered amazing songs like "Mona Lisa" by Lojay, Sarz, and Chris Brown, and "Pluto (Remember You)" by DJ Clock and Beatenberg. The lively local music scene was an integral part of my experience in South Africa and I can almost hear these songs playing in the background when I look back at photos of my time in Cape Town.