Queens College student Mike Strianese and the children of Mitchells Plain, South Africa, bond over their shared love of skateboarding during Strianese’s January 2012 study abroad trip. Undeterred by warnings about visiting the township—which was described as “horrible” and gang-ridden—Strianese instead chose to forge his own connections.
On the plane, Mike Strianese, who had never traveled that far or been alone for that long, realized with a gulp, “I’m going to Africa for a month. I don’t know anybody.” Longing to experience African culture, music, and art, when he realized there was a Winter Session option in South Africa, he knew it was for him. Back home in Oyster Bay, he affirmed, “I had the time of my life. I learned more in that month than in 18 years of living.”
A sophomore English major, Strianese spent January in Cape Town absorbed in “Memoirs of Life in South Africa.” QC English associate professor Jason Tougaw taught this three-credit class on apartheid, its legacies, and postcolonial identities. During the first week, along with other QC/CUNY students studying the “Human–Primate Interface,” he took a one-credit course on South Africa and stayed in a residence hall at the University of Cape Town.
Strianese is not one to remain indoors for long. “I love nature,” he says. He appreciated the mountains, forests, and class field trips to preserves and other beautiful spots. With several other QC students, he made an “arduous” hike up Table Mountain. Passionate about surfing, he took full advantage of the renowned beaches.
There’s one personal side trip forever imprinted on his mind. On the train to the “coloured” township of Mitchells Plain, passengers urged Strianese to turn back, warning him of its reputation “as a horrible place,” rife with gangs. He stayed his course to skateboard with new friends with whom he had connected. Dubbed “White Mike” for being the first Caucasian to venture into the neighborhood, he says he met “some of the nicest, most kind-hearted people” there. Children flocked around, he recalls; adults got out of their cars to take pictures.
Strianese finds it hard to believe that “People make such crazy judgments on something as uncontrollable as skin color.” Post-apartheid, South Africans “are doing a great job in regards to moving on,” he noticed. “If you look for it, you’ll find the leftover marks, but if you just go down there and open yourself up, you’ll find the people have already transcended it.” They haven’t forgotten, he adds, but they are forgiving, as students learned not only through the readings but also by listening to firsthand accounts.
Strianese envisions his future shimmering somewhere in the realms of teaching, therapy, charitable work, helping children, and creative writing (the latter “if I’m fortunate enough”). He documented his South African experiences with his first digital camera. He is excited about this summer’s road trip to British Columbia to “WWOOF,” that is, to help harvest crops through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. In the spirit of his troubadour side, he looks forward to many more journeys to harmonize his vacations, vocation, and avocations. As he enthusiastically advises fellow students, “If you have any inclination to study abroad, drop everything and just do it.”
Music he likes: Folk, especially the group Beirut (“they have a great sound that anyone could enjoy”), the Beatles, and indie bands, especially Real Estate and Broken Social Scene—“anything that can make me dance and make the people around me dance, so we can groove together.”
Favorite books: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. He notes, “With every book, you pull a little something out of it.”
Little-known fact: He is adding accordion to his guitar and bass repertoire by practicing on the 1960 Gretsch that used to be his father’s.