Matt at Stanford University, USA


Once I had accepted my admission offer to Stanford, everything went by fairly quickly. Stanford provided a detailed checklist of all the things that needed to be sorted before I arrived. The list didn’t seem to end.

The preparations needed for a two and a half month trip overseas are enormous, especially if you are travelling alone. Luckily, my accommodation and food was already all sorted as it was provided by Stanford University (at a pretty hefty fee). The only things left were the flights and the visa.

The visa application was probably the most difficult and time-consuming to do. I spent a long time gathering all my documents and filling out visa forms. As I was applying for a student visa. I needed a lot of extra documents, such as proof of finance, an I-20 enrolment form and proof of my current education status. Once all the applications were done and documents were gathered (all of which probably took a full day to compile) I went to my appointment at the Cape Town Consulate. I spent maybe 10 minutes there before I was granted my visa, I was completely shocked as I was expecting in-depth interviews. The biggest thing that helped with the visa application was to ensure all my documents were correct and the applications were filled in properly.

The most challenging aspects that I encountered were health insurance, fee payment and ensuring my academics at home were all taken care of. Stanford requires you to have health insurance or you have to buy their Cardinal health plan. Proving to Stanford I was insured was a nightmare and I had to submit the same form 6 times before it was accepted.

Ensuring my academics at home were not affected was another large challenge as I was effectively missing the entire third term. Luckily, my lecturers were more than accommodating and excused me from all my obligations with certain provisos. Needless to say, I have been back for three weeks now and I am still busy catching up. Although it is difficult to catch up the work, this opportunity was completely worth it.

Once all the flights were booked and the visas done, all that was left to do was to wait until the trip came. This was the most difficult part of the pre-trip part as I was really excited to go and explore! Getting through exams was difficult was my mind was constantly dwelling on my upcoming trip.

The most helpful tip I can offer anyone planning a journey like this is to give yourself enough time to do everything.  Don’t budget on your pace of getting things done, but rather on the pace of all the other components in your planning. I had just over 5 months to plan my trip which really helped me do everything correctly. The more time you have the easier things are to get done and the less stress you will experience.

Experience at Stanford University:

I arrived three days before my programme was due to begin. I was able to spend those three days in San Francisco exploring the city. I had enough time to see all the tourist sites such as Alcatraz Prison, the Golden Gate Bridge, the California Academy of Science, Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square. After the three days were over I boarded the CalTrain and headed to the Palo Alto train station.

When I arrived at the Palo Alto train station I faced a 2 kilometre walk to the Stanford campus. Once I reached the campus, I realised my residence building was on the opposite end of campus and I needed to walk another 2 kilometres. This was ok as the Stanford campus is so beautiful! It is also the largest University campus in the world, having its own zip code (94305), hospital, police station, sports stadiums, planetary observatory, hiking trails, gold course and accelerator lab.

I participated in the summer quarter, which is just an extension of Stanford’s normal academic year. As such, I could choose from any of Stanford’s normal academic courses. I chose to do Economics (money and banking) as well as International law and International relations. The economics course was based on how central banks operate as well as the global financial crises. The International law and International relations course was a mixture of political science and law, focusing on the United Nations and its branches.

More importantly than these programs, I got the opportunity to interact with international students from all over the world. Counties include Brazil, Nepal, Peru, Iceland, the UK, Italy, France, China, India, Turkey, Russia, Vietnam, Australia and Morocco. This was the most important part of the experience for me. Getting to learn about so many different cultures and points of view as eye-opening and really allowed me to grow as a person.

Besides the academics, I toured all around the Iconic Silicon Valley. I was fortunate enough to have tours of Google, Apple, Facebook and Tesla. Seeing these large tech companies in real life was a treat! And sadly no, Google is not exactly how it is depicted on the Internship, but it is pretty close. More than that I went to several California beaches, a football game, a baseball game as well as being able to celebrate the 4th of July.

The academic courses were much easier than I have experienced at Stellenbosch. The courses I did were third year level courses and are offered to Stanford students during their normal academic year. The level of academic difficulty was far easier than at Stellenbosch. However, free thought was far more encouraged than it is at Stellenbosch. I was challenged to give my own opinion on matters and to formulate my own arguments rather than repeat those of other people. The other aspect that was different was the number of international students there with whom I could engage.

Return Home:

Leaving Stanford was very difficult, mostly because I had made good friends and I was unsure whether I would see any of them again. First before I got home I had to spend almost a full day flying on an airplane, which was extremely exhausting! Once I landed at O.R. Tambo I went home and slept for 12 hours.

The biggest thing that changed while I was at Stanford was my perception of the academic standard in South Africa. I originally thought our standard was much lower than other countries and that our tertiary education was not comparable to the U.S.  After my experience I realise that the education standard in South Africa is extremely high and that our university degrees are extremely difficult to obtain and require far more work to achieve.

The only thing that was better in the States was the encouragement of free and individual thought. Coming up with one’s own arguments, solutions and opinions on things was liberating and, to me, much more useful than simply repeating other people’s viewpoints.  I plan to include much more of my own substantiated opinions and solutions to problems in my work from now on.

Regarding future travel, the one thing this trip did above all else was to ignite my passion to travel and experience the world and its cultures. After I am finished with my undergraduate degree I would like to do a masters either in the US or in the UK. From there I would like to work for a company or organisation that allows me to travel all over the world for a living. I also plan to make use of more study abroad opportunities in the next two years.