During the June / July holidays Anthea Hartzenberg attended the Hessische Internationale Sommeruniversitat at the Philipps-Universität Marburg. Here is Anthea’s report:
Pre – Departure:
Preparing for a trip abroad can be daunting, but it can also be fun and a learning opportunity. Summer school abroad was my first ever travel across the oceans and I was looking forward to all the arrangements beforehand. I was accepted to the Middle Eastern Politics – A European Perspective summer school offered by the University of Marburg in Hessen, Germany. I have heard legendary tales of German efficiency and was looking forward to test this legend. I wasn’t disappointed. The German consulate in Cape Town is an efficient, professional and well-equipped office. Aside from a bit of a wait, depending on what time you go, the process goes rather smoothly. Just ensure you have all the documents as required (stated on the website). And, to my surprise, if you plan on studying (as the main reason for your trip) then you don’t have to pay for the VISA! The wait was about three days and then all you have to do is pick it up and fly away. It is best to apply for a date sooner rather than later though. I flew on the 28th and only got an appointment for the 22nd. Yikes!
I managed to secure my flight booking a few months in advance, which helped to save on costs. It can be a bit of a wait for the US bursary to pay but if you can, book your flight as soon as your spot is confirmed. Otherwise you’ll be left waiting for the money to be paid while watching flights get more expensive day by day. A side note on the carrier that I used: I found that Etihad Airways was the cheapest by far! If you’re flying to Europe, they’re an excellent bet. Their service is really great and the staff is extremely professional and really nice. They have a mandatory stop over in Abu Dhabi but this is usually no longer than 8 hours AT MOST.
In terms of money, I used the Travelwallet offered by the Standard Bank of South Africa. There are pros and cons to this. The application process is fairly straightforward and you can select the currency you want to be on the card. The card then acts a pre-paid debit card. The only hitch is that if you think that you will need more money while you are abroad you have to complete the reload forms while you are here – which means that if you think you going to reload four times, you have to complete the forms four times and leave it here for someone to take to the bank to make the deposit. I only completed one extra form, which meant that I could only have one reload. Which was a problem seeing as I ran out of money FOUR times. I found a solution, but more on that later.
On the day of departure, leave ample time for customs checking at the airport. I arrived an hour and a half before my flight and almost missed my check in due to customs and baggage related issues.
During my Trip:
I was fortunate enough to be able to travel for 3 weeks prior to my course starting. I went to Prague, Paris, Rome and Frankfurt. If you have the opportunity, I would strongly advise you take some time to travel before or after your course, especially if it is your first time abroad. It really helps to acclimate and you have the benefit of less structure and more time to explore. My course took place in Marburg, which is a small university town in the South East part of Germany. Having travelled to Frankfurt before the course I had an idea of German society and understood the public transport system and operations. However, this did not stop me from missing my stop by an entire city. I managed to double back and was glad that the inspector was helpful and understanding. Marburg is really pretty. It is nestled between hills and has a river flowing through it. It has a beautiful, ancient church, Elisabethkirche and a castle atop a hill. The staff of the summer programme met us at the main station and was incredibly helpful (especially with me and my super heavy backpack). With check in done, we had a mini tour of the city and an agreement to meet at a local bar later in the evening for beers and getting to know each other.
The negative thing about traveling beforehand is that you have by now endured weeks of fleeting friendships, repeating the same conversations (I come from SA, I study politics, I am here for summer school etc etc) that it is a bit daunting having to go through that again. But it is important to invest this time in getting to know your fellow students or to risk exclusion. When you have a group of people (we were about 40) from all over the world, in a strange city with the knowledge that you’ll be together for the next few weeks, it’s easy to form groups to find some kind of familiarity. Don’t miss this opportunity.
The course was structured into four weeks. Two weeks of two seminars and two weeks of complementary courses. I took a seminar on Iraq and the European Union and my second seminar was on the European Union. The complementary courses were on Arab language and Arab culture. I was really impressed with the Iraq seminar. It was offered by a former under-Secretary General of the UN who was actually placed in Iraq during the second Gulf War and was really outspoken against the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Needless to say, he had a wealth of personal anecdotes and stories that were most illuminating. Out of all the seminars, this one was the best. The Arab culture course was also interesting in that it dispelled many myths that abounded surrounding the Arab culture. An Egyptian lecturer, who struggled a bit with English but managed to get the message across, offered it.
The summer school is very different to studying in Stellenbosch for many obvious reasons. Firstly, you are surrounded by international students – each with their own histories, identities, opinions and affiliations. This is a benefit but also a negative. It is beneficial because you are exposed to many different ideas about life and current issues. It can be a negative because some of the students might not have a well informed opinion or can come across as arrogant or ignorant. My advise is to be open minded. Be willing to place yourself in someone else’s shoes.
The course also had a number of weekend excursions to Eisenach and Weimar in Eastern Germany, Strasbourg in France and Frankfurt. These are invaluable and really a great addition to the course.
On return to Stellenbosch I think that the really effects of the summer school are still to settle in. Even more than before I feel like Stellenbosch is a box in which I find myself. So cut off from the world. Even on the university campus, there is little chance of engaging with international students. Being abroad opened my mind to the fact that people are real everywhere. Reading about cars being set on fire in Berlin can be an impersonal experience. But when you’re there, speaking to people who live in Berlin, is makes it real. I have been following the sovereign debt crisis facing the Eurozone of late. It was such a great experience to be able to sit with a Czech in a bar and talk about it and what they think about it. I fear that we are missing out on being part of the global community here at Stellenbosch. We need to see beyond our little world and engage with students from different places and with different ideas and views. Initiatives like the international food evening held at Stellenbosch is a great step in that direction.
I definitely plan on returning to Europe, hopefully for a longer period. I feel that Europeans are more open, more opinionated, more experienced and more interesting. I love South Africa and it will always be my home, but personal development has less to do with patriotism than with experience. Europe is a cultured, historic and ever changing community. I would love the opportunity to work there for an extended period of time. And maybe even one day live there permanently. But then again, there is so much of the world yet to be seen. The Middle East demands my current attention.
Being abroad also made me appreciate South African culture more. We are optimistic, hopeful and tolerant. Yes, there are many things that we should be concerned about but there are also many things that we should be happy about. It’s not a good idea to compare societies because each has its own set of circumstances and histories. I find that it’s best to appreciate and to try to understand other cultures. At the same time though I feel like I have a contribution to make to South African society, a responsibility even to help shape more open mindedness and willingness to learn and experience. I was disappointed to not see more South Africans on the summer school course. Translating the experience into my everyday life back home will take time but it an important transition to make, I think. I do believe that our transport system, for instance, can be as effective and efficient as European systems, I believe that we have the same calibre of leadership available to compete on the international level and I believe that we do have the political will to enforce regional integration and cooperation. With this in mind, I also think that the country needs more people to go and experience other societies and to return to contribute to this task.