The biggest part of the pre-trip for me was the booking of my ticket. Before the travel bursary was paid into my account, I began to compare flights to New York. New York has three main airports, La Guardia, Newark (in neighbouring New Jersey), and JFK. JFK is the biggest and you will probably find all the majority of cheap flights go to JFK. I used Travelstart (www.travelstart.co.za) to compare flights before booking the flights through the websites themselves. Bear in mind the prices of the flights fluctuate on an hourly basis, and there is almost no way to know if the price will drop or increase if you wait longer. My advice would be to settle on a price you are comfortable paying and book your ticket. In the end, after booking my ticket, the prices went up by about R3000, so luckily I booked it when I did! There is also a trade-off to consider when flying to New York, namely, the travel time vs. the cost. If cost is not an issue, then the most comfortable way of travelling would be to take a direct flight from Cape Town or Johannesburg to JFK, which is a longer time flying non-stop, but you will arrive earlier. As a student, cost constraints factored into my calculations, so I chose Turkish Airways, which was cheapest by some margin. The downside to this was a very long transit time, which included stops in Johannesburg and Istanbul, but then again, I did save a lot more money.
The second big pre-trip consideration was that of a visa. The United States has very strict immigration laws and requires all South African citizens to get a visa before travelling. Luckily, having dual-citizenship, I was able to travel on an Irish Passport, and was therefore exempt from a visa, only requiring registration online with the Visa Waiver Program. However, one key tip that I can give in the build-up to your trip is your passport- Keep it safe! With about six weeks to go to my trip, I left my passport within convenient biting distance of a Labrador puppy, and promptly my passport was ripped to shreds. After much panic, I managed to get a new passport with about a week to go to my trip. Not something I wish to repeat. When applying for visa’s or any travel documentation, with a few exceptions, you will mostly only need your passport number, expiry date and a few other particulars. I would recommend taking a photo or photocopying your passport details page and just using that, keeping your passport locked away until you fly.
My last pre-trip worry was accommodation. During the summer school, accommodation was provided by the university I was attending, yet I decided to spend a few days either side of the summer school exploring New York City. Being a big city, accommodation in New York City is very expensive, so in my planning I managed to find a friend of a friend and organised to stay for free, just down the road from the Empire State Building. I would highly recommend this, given the enormous amount of money I saved and the new friends I made. However, If you do not have any other options (or money), there are a few websites such as Couch Surfing (www.couchsurfing.org), that will reduce your accommodation costs tremendously.
The summer school I attended was the Hyman P. Minsky Summer Seminar 2012, presented by the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College (www.levyinstitute.org, www.bard.edu). The university is located in Annandale-On-Hudson, NY, about two and half hours from New York City. Located up in the forests on the banks of the Hudson River, the area is a far cry from the vibrant busy setting of New York City, with not much going on when the university is on holiday. The theme of the summer school was examining the research into financial instability by Hyman Minsky, who was a prominent Post-Keynesian economist. The school of thought that is Post-Keynesian economics is quite rare in many parts of the world, and South Africa is fortunate to have one famous Post-Keynesian economist in Basil Moore, located here at Stellenbosch University. This was beneficial to me, as it gave me another perspective on my studies. The summer school spanned over eight days (June 16-June 24) and consisted of hour and a half lectures, typically from 8h30 until 16h30, with breaks for lunch and tea. The lecturers were from a wide variety of American Schools, such as the University of California at Riverside (Gary Dymski), and Università de Siena (Mario Tonveronachi). The attendees were mostly Masters and PhD students, with a few working in the private sector, and mostly came from Brazil and Greece, with a few smatterings of other nations. I was the only South African. However, the quality of knowledge present meant that the downtime was filled with much educated discussions over current affairs and economic theory, something I was glad to sit back and listen to!
The summer school provided us with accommodation, food (a lot of it!), and a small travel grant of $300. I would recommend researching this, as it may change your saving or spending patterns. For example, the travel grant was only paid out on day 4 of the summer school, so I had to just account for that in how I spent my money beforehand. A big thing to consider when saving is the money spent on socializing. The campus was located in a wooded area outside of Red Hook, with the closest bars being just outside the main campus entrance, and in the nearby town of Tivoli. I had not anticipated that many of the evenings were spent at one or two of these bars and the cost of drinks and travel were quite expensive and could very quickly add up on any given night. This was especially true in New York City, and I think you should always add a little bit more to your socializing budget to account for this.
After the summer school had ended, I was fortunate enough to spend a few extra days in New York City. If you have the time, I would highly advise extending your trip to see the city, preferably with someone. A warning before you go, however, be sure to let your bank know you are travelling out of the country. I failed to do so and a few days before I left, my card was blocked on fraud suspicion. Luckily , I managed to sort it out, but not something you want when you wish to shop on your last few days.
On return I flew back on Turkish Airlines once again. This time, I was faced with the option of spending a day layover in Istanbul before returning to South Africa. Fortunately, Turkish Airways provides a free city tour to all its’ travelers who have a free day in transit. Despite that I was exhausted, disheveled, and missing home, this was brilliant. The airline organized for us to be picked up and taken for breakfast before seeing all the famous sights of Istanbul, lunch, and then returned to the airport, and all for free! Faced with this option, I would definitely take it again, given how much I got to see of a new city.
On my eventual return to South Africa, I was disappointed that the trip had flown by at such a rapid rate! On a university level, Bard College was much more advanced in terms of internet access (the campus was one big free Wifi zone), but Stellenbosch is a much more vibrant town. I think I now would like to return to the United States more than ever, and am planning to return next year for a semester exchange. A few things to consider if you are planning on going to a summer school in the United States are, firstly, location. Since Bard College was close enough to New York City, travelling time and cost was minimal. However, many schools are located far away from major airports, and it would mean having to incur higher flying costs, and most likely rail or bus transport to your destination. Secondly, being so close to a major city meant that I was able to visit New York City and experience all the excitement around it. Again, if the schools are very remote, the cities or towns situated nearby might not offer much excitement, and you won’t experience the famous American city life. Even in South Africa, think of attending a city university vs. one located out in the country. Finally, do not attend a summer school just to see a foreign country. I was given the choice of attending a summer school in Germany over August also, but in the end I decided on the New York option, for it had a much greater fit to my course and was over the holiday period. However, many will not be this lucky, and to attend a summer school that is only loosely related to your interests can only be a waste of time and money, and may mean you sacrificing valuable term time for something that will not benefit as much.
A final thought on the whole summer school/exchange process is, while I was on the summer school, I met students who were taking sabbaticals from their studies to pursue other interests, or attend summer schools like the one I did. Taking a break and furthering your studies overseas is exponentially beneficial and will benefit you much more than working straight away.