My exchange trip was exciting, scary, extremely fun and sometimes lonely, all mixed together in an unforgettable whirlwind experience. The decision to apply for exchange was one of the best decisions I could have made, for more than one reason. Apart from the thrill of an overseas stay, it also made me work harder in my pre-final year so that my grades were good enough to meet the entry requirements. In this blog post I intend to be as honest as possible and won’t brush over the more challenging parts of the experience. Your decision to go on exchange should be an informed one and here I’ll try to give you the information you need.
Preparing for your trip is extremely important and I didn’t do it particularly well. Even though Stellenbosch University and EBS both assist you a lot in preparing, the actual planning comes down to you in the end. If you thought essay deadlines were important, then deadlines here are make or break. If you miss a housing application or visa application deadline, no exchange. If you forget to pack your medical aid documents, your travel insurance or any other essential documents, you will have an exchange, just not a very nice one. My advice here would be to follow instructions from both universities closely, put a calendar with deadline dates up in your room and make a to-do list that you can check off as you go. I applied for my visa two weeks before my flight was booked and received it the day before I had to fly. It was really stressful, don’t do that.
The exchange trip can become quite expensive if you don’t do your research properly. Most of my pre-departure planning time went into searching for affordable accommodation. For visa purposes you’re required to get medical aid from an approved insurance company, as well as open a blocked account with a bank account. EBS recommends a few insurance companies, the cheapest of which is CareMed. It’s about half the price of all the other ones and covers everything you need (you really don’t need to go to the dentist for free, it’s only three months). EBS also recommends using Deutsche Bank to open a blocked account, but it’s expensive and extremely bureaucratic. Some of the students who used Deutsche Bank had to go to the bank up to four times in the first few weeks to sort out admin stuff. You don’t want that. I used X-patrio and they were amazing. Everything is online, it’s extremely quick and efficient and way cheaper than any other company. They also partner with N26 bank, which is a completely online bank and lets you draw money at any ATM.
In terms of packing, you actually need a lot less clothes than you think. I ended up not wearing almost half the clothes I packed and making space for gifts I bought was really a struggle in the end. It’s so cold the whole time that you just end up wearing a warm coat and scarf every day, and no one even sees the clothes you’re wearing underneath. I also made the mistake of packing on the morning of my flight, which resulted in me taking a fairly random arrangement of clothes (also don’t do this).
The first two weeks were the most difficult (but also the most exciting). This is the time where you meet a bunch of new people, try to figure out how the grocery stores work and spend a lot of time getting on the wrong busses or trains. Making an effort with the other exchange students is really important, since the most friendships form during this time. I found it useful to chat to a bunch of different people, so that you end up having a group for every occasion (i.e sightseeing, partying, studying etc). EBS gave us a few useful classes on how German culture works and some useful tips on transport and travelling. Other than that you kind of figure it out as you go, using the trusty trial-and-error method. I did this by making my (newly made) friends wait 30 minutes for me because I got onto the wrong train, having an old German man shout at me (in German) for sitting on the wrong bus seat and having to spend the equivalent of my daily allowance on shopping bags by forgetting to bring my own.
It’s quite easy to fall into holiday mode during the first few weeks, since the classes are still very introductory and you don’t have to attend any Company Law or Evidence Law lectures. This can be quite dangerous, as you’ll end up having to spend 8 hours a day listening to recordings, just to catch up. Try to be consistent in listening to recordings and set out a few hours every week to make sure you are up to date. The fact that none of the other students at EBS needed to do this was quite demotivating, as I had to skip out on some of their adventures to listen to recordings. Studying for your two Stellenbosch exams can also be a bit lonely, but it helps to talk to your friends back home who are studying for the same thing. Keeping each other up to date on your study progress and motivating each other through the late hours of the night can help a lot.
The academics at EBS was somewhat strangely structured, with one subject running for a whole week every day and then never again. Some weeks you would have no classes at all and other weeks you’d barely have a lunch break. This is nice for travelling, but can be frustrating at times. The exams are also pretty straightforward and if you study in the same way you do for your Stellenbosch exams, then you’ll easily do well.
Return to Stellenbosch:
If I had to use a phrase to describe the whole experience (including the first few weeks back in South Africa), it would be “rollercoaster ride”. There were times when I had the best time imaginable – walking around the Christmas markets drinking Glühwein, exploring nightlife in Mainz and Frankfurt or just hanging out with a few friends at someone’s flat, telling stories about the different countries we come from. Other times were more difficult though – where you miss home so much that nothing seems fun or exciting anymore and you can feel like the loneliest person in the world, even though you’re in a crowded restaurant or bar. I think it’s important to recognise beforehand that some parts will be hard – being in a strange country with strange people is, well, strange.
Coming back home I felt a weird mixture of sadness and excitement – I was really excited to see all the people that I’d left behind in South Africa, but I had spent just enough time in Germany to make friends with whom I had created a bond and would truly miss. Even though I stay in touch with a few of them via WhatsApp and other social media, it’s scary to think that I might never see many of them again.
In conclusion, going on exchange was one of the best decisions I have ever made and hopefully it will be one of yours too.