Studying medicine in Cuba changed my life

Studying medicine in Cuba changed my life

Mmutlana Mojapelo, a fifth-year medical student who has just returned to South Africa from Cuba, shares her experience of studying abroad.

Mmutlana Mojapelo - Medical student
Mmutlana Mojapelo/ Provided

Mmutlana Mojapelo is one of the students from South Africa who were granted the opportunity to study medicine in Cuba in 2013.

She says studying in Cuba was an opportunity of a lifetime that has shaped her life for the better.

Growing up, the 27-year-old says she didn’t always dream of becoming a doctor, it was more of her parents’ dream for her.

“I know my dad, my parents, wanted me to be a doctor, my grandparents wanted me to be a doctor, and I was indecisive,” she says.

Although she was good at maths and science, she says she wasn’t very good at biology. So, she thought she would study Actuarial Science. However, it was later in school where she began watching medical series on television and developed a love for the field.

Being a socialite and someone who is passionate about helping people, she thought medicine would allow her the opportunity to serve people and make a difference in the world.

This led to her applying for medicine at different institutions in South Africa. It was during the time she was studying at the University of Free State where her dad saw an advert in the newspaper for an opportunity for medical students to study in Cuba.

She applied and was one of the fortunate students to be accepted.

Although she was excited about the opportunity, Mmutlana says she was also very scared to leave her family and country behind.

READ: How your child can study online without your help

Culture shock

Mmutlana says the biggest adjustment she had to make was getting used to the culture in Cuba. 

“The culture shock was from the moment we landed at the airport until the last day I left to come back this year [2020] on 31 July.”

Mmutlana says that although she spent a lot of time on Google trying to find out about Cuba, the search engine results were not a true reflection of what she experienced.

The first thing that shocked her was the high temperature in Cuba.

“It is extremely hot,” says Mmutlana. She says she couldn’t even sleep without a fan on.

The food was also a major adjustment that she had to make.

“The water didn’t even taste like water and the cold drink feels like it doesn’t have enough acid or enough sugar. Nothing tasted okay,” she says.

But the biggest culture shock was the language.

“The culture shock was definitely the language. They don’t speak English at all. The Cubans speak Spanish.”

She says classes and exams were offered in Spanish.

“Over time we got to learn it (Spanish). We got to understand it,” she says.

“Another culture shock was the internet. When we arrived, there was no data. Cuba didn’t have data for the longest time. Data came in late 2018.”  

Advice to students who want to study abroad

“For someone that wants to study abroad, I’d say it depends on the country," says Mmutlana. 

“Google the country. Prepare yourself for a serious culture shock. You need to be someone who knows that you can live in any circumstance. You don’t mind change and you don’t mind learning a language. You don’t mind socialising. You don’t mind new friends, because that’s all it is,” says Mmutlana.

She adds that you need to be mature because you are leaving your family behind and will need to be independent. 

“You are away from your family. You don’t know anyone who you can run to, who can comfort you.”

Mmutlana also adds that you have to be someone who is hard working, focused, and not easily discouraged.

“You need to be a person that even if they belittle you and undermine your country or your family or whatever, you stand. You are there to study. The nice thing about studying abroad is that you will have international connections. You will make international friends,” she says.

She adds that you need to have a balanced life. She says it is important to travel and have fun.

“We got to go to the beaches, the hotels, we got to enjoy the life there,” says Mmutlana.

For someone who wants to study medicine, Mmutlana says it is a good career to follow, especially if you are in it for the right reasons.

“Medicine needs someone who studies hard. Medicine is not about intelligence. It’s about working hard," she says. 

She concludes: "Don’t do it for the money. Go for it because you are a hard worker." 

Mmutlana is currently completing her Medical Degree at the University of Pretoria and is looking forward to the day she will officially become a doctor and start making a difference in South Africa. 

READ: Travelling internationally during the COVID-19 pandemic

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