Leaving for exchange can seem extremely daunting because of the numerous application processes, meetings and email chains with faculty from Stellenbosch and the overseas university as well obtaining a visa and booking flights, but I can assure you that it is all worth it in the end.
The biggest problem that we encountered before leaving was finding subjects that were similar to the modules we would be doing in Stellenbosch in order to be able to transfer the credits. This involved vigorous searching of the NCSU course catalog and many emails to Stellenbosch professors and faculty at NCSU. In the end most of the big decisions with regards to subjects were done in the US at a meeting with an NCSU academic advisor. We were able to do four out of our required five modules at NCSU, which has pushed out degree out by one semester. With the updated ECSA outcomes a mechanical engineer should be able to still finish their degree in the prescribed four years, it is also possible for a mechatronic engineer, however it will involve a very tough final year at Stellenbosch. Even with this slight extension of my degree I would still highly recommend going on exchange.
You will receive an acceptance package from NCSU which will include a set of instructions regarding obtaining a visa as well other forms and fees that need to be completed before your trip and your DS-2019 study abroad visa form. This form is very important as it is needed in order to obtain your visa as well as enter the United States. The visa instructions given in the package and online are very clear and cover everything that you need to do before your exchange. If you are going to Cape Town for you visa meeting, be aware that there is no parking at the embassy and you will have to park at the nearby shopping centre, this being said be sure to arrive early to your meeting as there will be a queueing process and you will have rearrange a meeting if you miss your slot. The visa interview process is very laid back, just be sure to have your DS-2019 form, a few printed ID photos and any other forms that are stated on the instructions.
The whole process is very busy and one of main questions you will get from family and friends is “have you booked your flights yet?” and this can often get very stressful. Do not worry about flights. We were told that the cheapest time to book flights is 50 days before your intended departure but often you will not be prepared to book flights that early in the process. I only booked my flights within a month of my departure and Stellenbosch’s travel compensation was still able to cover it. Also be sure to book flights with an adjustable return date, you may think you know when you want to come home, but you can never be sure, I ended up staying in America for a whole month after my original return date.
North Carolina State University:
NCSU is extremely well catered for exchange and other international students, they have a thorough orientation program and are extremely helpful when settling in. The orientation program includes all international students being split into groups with a leader from the university, many social and informational events and activities take place over the three days before the local students arrive at university. This orientation helps you to familiarize yourself with the campus and sets up a base group that can answer any questions you may have throughout the semester.
NC State is also the home of the Alexander Residence Hall, which is the college dorm that I stayed in. In this dorm a foreign student is paired up with an American roommate, this makes for an incredible experience as your American roommate is there to show you around, take you to events and expose you to American culture. The other half of the people that you live with are also international students, looking to make friends, have a great time and experience everything that NC State and America have to offer.
NC State has a very highly ranked engineering department and the facilities clearly show it. The course work that we covered lined up with what we had done in previous classes and seemed that it was very similar to what we would have been doing in Stellenbosch, however there are many differences in the education system and the routines that you develop. Every morning I had to catch one of the university’s busses to the engineering campus that was about a kilometer from the main campus, these busses go all over campus and town and they are free to use for anyone in the area. Each subject only has class twice a week, although they are longer than classes at Stellenbosch, the classes are smaller than at Stellenbosch and the professors a very engaged with the subjects that they teach and with their students – making it easier to learn and enables the class to cover more work in less time. There is also a weekly homework assignment for each subject that keeps you on top of the subject matter and makes up for the lack of class time.
One of the biggest differences with regards to academics is the different grading system, where we work percentage and count 50% as a pass, the US use letter grades where C is a pass. The letter grades represent your position in the class and can be roughly related to percentage as C – 75%, B – 85%, A – 95%. Don’t be scared of these high percentages, the marking schemes are different and they have a similar pass rate to Stellenbosch.
There are many things to look forward such as football (and other sports) events, dances, shows and many more university run events and trips, but the best thing about exchange is the relationships you develop with so many people from so many different countries and backgrounds. I never expected to make such good friends and I can only hope to travel again to see them and make more friends.
Return to Stellenbosch
The return to Stellenbosch for the most part has been relatively easy, I have moved back into the same digs with my same friends and it almost feels as though I never left. After a couple meetings with Prof. Schreve discussing the modules I had done overseas and how they fit in at Stellenbosch a few options were given to me on how I could finish my degree. These included finishing my degree this year with my old classmates, however I would be overextending myself and it was not recommended, or extending my degree by a semester in order to finish my one leftover module, I would be able to take other modules at the same time or start working part time, and finally it was highly recommended that I start my Masters next year January and simply carry the one undergrad module into my Masters. All of these options are good choices depending on what you would like to do and the staff organizing the exchange are happy to help and are available for any questions or concerns.
Although exchange was an absolutely amazing experience, I am happy to be back in South Africa, particularly back in Stellenbosch. I have always felt at home in Stellenbosch and the happy, friendly culture that surrounds it is definitely unique. While away I realized that South Africa is extremely difficult to describe to a person who has never been here before, we have such a unique landscape, culture and politics that embrace some of the best parts of the world, but also some of the worst and the way that these parts are able to coexist intertwined is astonishing.
It was always in my plans to travel abroad after I had obtained my degree, but the places I want to travel to and how long I want to be travelling for have definitely changed after exchange. My future plans now include Denmark, Austria, France, South America and long trip to Australia and New Zealand, these are all countries where my good friends stay or have recommended going to.
I want to end off by saying that if I have not made it clear already I would definitely recommend going on an exchange. You will experience a whole new culture, meet like-minded people and simply learn new things that you could never expect to learn while at home. Everyone can name highlights of any trip but it is extremely difficult to explain the feelings you have and day to day experiences that you go through when you live in a new place with new people for an extended period of time, it is simply something you have to experience for yourself.