Jan Skiing

Jan attending Maastricht University, the Netherlands

Jan Retief took part in a semester exchange at Maastricht University. Here is his blog posting about this experience.


Studying abroad for a semester was never really part of any plan. When I started my masters last year, I planned to do it, get it done and find a job in South Africa. The thought of going abroad and studying never even remotely crossed my mind. It ended up being the best decision I have ever made.

I first heard of the possibility last year in August whilst at a conference, one of my lecturers spoke about Stellenbosch’s masters exchange program and the incredible opportunities available. A fellow masters student got psyched and decided to apply a week later, I decided I didn’t want to miss out and began to consider the possibility.

I decided that applying won’t hurt and the first step was to consider where looks interesting. Since I did not plan to go on an exchange to study at a particular university, I decided we’ll anything goes. I started looking at North America and in particular the USA, since I knew nothing about the universities, I searched for an overview online and in particular the universities rating. None of the universities in the US looked particularly interesting and specifically their system of postgraduate studies was perplexing. I therefore decided to look at Europe.

From the start I was excited about the Netherlands. I started looking around and read up about Maastricht University, which has a very good finance department. I knew from a previous exchange student who applied there that she really enjoyed it. It had the exact subjects I was looking for and just sounded awesome. And so I decided Maastricht was going to be my first choice. I was interested in Italy as well and so the University of Bologna was my second choice and Bristol in the UK was my third choice.

Because I applied so late, my application was quite rushed to say the least. There is understandably a large number of documents that need to be finalized. We were also required to make a video for our application. I finished all of it in time, and got creative with my video, but the application takes quite a bit of time. I would have started earlier if I could do it again.

I found out that I was accepted for Maastricht in October and was incredibly thrilled. The next phase of the application started, and this requires even more documentation. Naturally, the only way one can go on an exchange is by submitting all the required forms.

But it is important to note that timewise not everything is in one’s control.

When I eventually could submit my visa application it was too late in December and the office was closed for Christmas, I did obtain my Visa in January and arrived at Maastricht in time but receiving something as crucial as a Visa so late does put pressure on all the other arrangements. I would advise interested future students to have a very firm understanding of what is required and how long it takes as soon as the application starts.

Experience at Maastricht University:

I arrived at the University of Maastricht in February and classes started immediately. The universities class program is split into two periods, the first period was from February until the beginning of April and the second period from mid-April until the beginning of June. In the first period I studied a master’s course in the finance department called fixed income management. I knew the workload was considerable, and so I only applied for the single course. The education system at Maastricht is different from everywhere else, they use the PBL (Problem-based learning) system which doesn’t involve a classic lecture, but rather students that participate in discussions in small groups. The class in total was about 20 people, and we were split into groups of 4. We had 2 classes each week and each group was responsible to facilitate 3 of the classes in that period. Facilitation means the group was responsible for a two-hour presentation about the periods work. A lecturer was present at each class and would add to or correct any of the presented material. Furthermore, each week we did a case-study that we had to hand in.

Besides preparing for the presentations the course took quite a bit of work each week, and as a group, we were busy at least three to five days a week for five to eight hours a day. The case-studies was very practical, and each was about an example of fixed income instruments in the industry.

The second course I did was called strategic management of technology and innovation, which was a bachelors business course. I decided that it would be worthwhile to study something different from quantitative finance for the second period and the course I studied was the first business course I did since first year. The course also followed the PBL system but the workload was less, which gave me a bit more time to enjoy the Netherlands.

In my opinion the PBL system works very well, the participation and preparation for the presentations and the mandatory case studies each week forced me to work harder throughout the course then I traditionally did at Stellenbosch. I ended up doing well in both courses and can say without any hesitation that Stellenbosch definitely provided the necessary background to understand and thrive in the subjects studied at Maastricht.

Furthermore, living in Maastricht was incredible fun. The majority of international students (South Africans included) live in a residence type building called the Guesthouse. There were students from all over world: a large group of Australians, Americans, Canadians, Spanish people, Brazilians and so forth. We were only 3 South Africans and definitely the smallest group. Although in the beginning everyone more or less hanged out with people from the same country (which meant making some buddies was a bit harder) in the end we were one large group of friends that socialized whenever possible. It was incredible fun living in Maastricht and I had some of my best times with incredible people in that city.

I made some great friends that I am really looking forward to visiting (and welcoming) in the not too distant future.

Returning to South Africa:

After I finished my exams at Maastricht I had the opportunity to travel for few weeks around Europe. It was enlightening to seen so many cultures and places, but what made travelling incredible was that I travelled the entire time with the different groups of people I became friends with whilst in Maastricht.

Spending so much time in different places and countries and getting used to hanging out with people from around the whole world was quite an experience. Looking back, I was incredibly fortunate.

Coming back the first thing that hit me, unexpectedly, was reverse culture shock. Getting used to different cultures and learning to adapt to other norms and habits made it almost difficult to get used to home. I missed Europe almost immediately and started thinking of when I could go travel as soon as I unpacked. That is not to say it was not nice being back home, I missed steak and speaking Afrikaans a lot whilst in Europe, and it was very nice see my family again. Meeting up with old friends and sharing my experiences was great as well.

The first week I spent at home and just recuperated from the previous few weeks, eating healthily whilst travelling is quite underrated. After two weeks I returned to Stellenbosch and resumed my masters. Academically, my exchange was very informative and enlightening, and I can definitely say that I am more learnt afterwards, however my (Stellenbosch) master’s projects and thesis did suffer a bit and I have had to do a lot more this second semester then planned.

I would advise students to plan before going on an exchange and to know that it is difficult to focus on a thesis whilst completing courses at a different university. However, the benefits of broadening my masters despite the additional work was without any doubt worthwhile. I find the skills that I have learnt there useful every day.

I found my exchange unexpectedly life changing. I never really thought seriously about travelling and possibly living abroad before, but after my time in the Netherlands it has become a priority. I plan to manage my career in such a way that travelling and hopefully working abroad (and not necessarily in Europe) is on the agenda. Spending time in other cultures is incredibly enriching. Furthermore, there really is something to first world living and it was a privilege to have lived in Europe.

I would just like to thank the International Students office of Stellenbosch for the incredible opportunity to have studied abroad, for the assistance in my application and for making it all possible. I am grateful for everything.