During the June / July holidays Grethe Mattheus attended the Graz University Summer School. Here is her report:
So…you have been selected to attend the Graz University Summer School in Austria! BIG WHOOP! You have thought long and hard about how this fits with your academic dreams and you are looking forward to discovering new perspectives on Sustainability and the best of all…staying in a real life castle! O yea! Now that we are all on the same page, there are a few more nitty gritty things to attend to before you start packing.
- I am unfortunately not the best person to give advice on the visa application process for Austria, because I travelled a bit beforehand and my point of entry, exit and longest stay was in the Netherlands. However, the bit of wisdom I have, I will share J The Austrian Embassy is located in Pretoria, only in Pretoria, BUMMER. Luckily the Stellenbosch International Office was so kind as to give us some extra money in our travel bursary to cover the flight to Joburg. The Graz University is also very helpful in this regard. They contact the embassy beforehand and give them your details and the purpose of your visit. They will send you the link for the embassy’s website and there you will get all the info you need-it is really set out very nicely and user friendly! You make an appointment by phone. You just have to remember that you have to pay to make an appointment-so you have to have credit card details (yours or your parents/friend) when you phone. Luckily this is a once off payment, because students going to Austria on exchange do not have to pay for their VISA application. This is what I know.
- If you have the time and funds (which does not work out as much as you would think!)
I would really advise you to travel a bit before or after the summer school. I mean, you have a ticket to Europe! And the way I see it, the whole point of the experience is not only about academics, but also about broadening your perspective, being an ambassador for you university and bringing all those experiences back to Stellenbosch, your studies and future career.
- The Netherlands Consulate General is located in Strand Street. You make an appointment online which is sooo easy. One point of advice-do not go onto a separate booking link that you may find on Google. I did and it showed that there was no appointment for 3months! Go onto the website: http://capetown.embassytools.com/, go into the schedule section and just click on a date and time that is available. The website states very clearly all the documentation that you need-so do not stress! Just read carefully and make sure that you have everything in the right order. If you are going to travel, just make sure of the specific requirements, such as funds and all the relevant information of the person you are going to visit.
- Once you have your appointment and necessary documents go there a bit earlier on the day just to be at ease. I was in and out of there in 15minutes!
- Just remember to tell the person that is taking your ID photo which country you are going to visit, because they have to be sure to do it exactly according to those specifications.
- Just a note-you can pay your VISA at the consulate with a debit/credit card, so you don’t have to take cash.
- Someone else can also go pick it up for you-you just have to sign the form and they have to take prove of identification when they collect it.
- But hey…you are short one thing…
- Jip, you need a flight itinerary or original ticket to be able to apply for your VISA. I would recommend that you start looking at ticket prices as soon as you here you are accepted to the summer school. You don’t have to book immediately, but look at what different airlines offer and work with those figures. The ticket prices really goes up overnight and booking a week later could sometimes be up to R1000 more expensive. Travelstart is a nice website to compare prices.
- You can book your own ticket online, but I found the best deal at Student Flight Centre in Stellenbosch (near Vida e Cafe) I worked with Heidi and she helped me so much with getting the best deal! I would really advise you to use them!
- So now you are set with a VISA and Ticket, time to start packing!
- When you start packing you think that you are going to Europe in the summer. WRONG. You are going the place that has the most unpredictable summer weather EVER! I kid you not. So pack your nice summery wardrobe, but be sure, I mean sure, to pack: a small umbrella, waterproof jacket/poncho thingy/something to wear in rain, closed shoes that provides semi-rain resistance and something warm. The weather at the summer school was really all over the place. One day you want to dive into the pool (so be sure to take a swimsuit), but the next your running to get out of the rain in the streets of Graz. You can also pack something nice (smart casual) for the opening and closing function.
- Something else that is a nice idea is to take some South African souvenirs like a few little bead flags or even just postcards to give to the new friends you are going to make. A friend from Kazakhstan gave us some chocolate from her country and I really wished I had a SA gift to return the favour.
- NB: More on the academic side of things (that’s actually why you are going, remember :)), it really helps a lot if you print out the readings you have to do before going to the summer school. And actually read them before going to the summer school! On the plane, train, wherever. There is not always time at the summer school and if there is you are missing out on a lot of other fun times because you are sitting in your room reading! So do it, you won’t regret it J
- Now for the important stuff- the academic side of things. The day basically consisted of
a general lecture in the morning that is presented by one of the seminar lectures. This covered an introduction to what they discussed in their specific seminar, be it economics, literature or sustainability. Three of the five morning of the week there was also transferrable skills workshops. Here we had the choice between academic writing and creative writing. The creative writing was an unforgettable experience with Rolando Honojosa. We had the opportunity to write a short story and get insight and editing from the expert himself. I would highly recommend it 🙂 The afternoon consisted of three hour lectures. During week 1 we covered the topic of “The Development of the City in Latin America: Reality or Fiction?” Week 2 focused more on environmental sustainability with the topic of “American Environments: Present State and Sustainability. The structure of the classes is very interactive and informal. We were only 6 students and there were a lot of room for discussion and bringing new ideas to the table. During both weeks we watched documentaries that the students brought along and were not part of the original material.
- In general the organization, administration and structure of the summer school could not have been better. Everything was exceptionally well planned, organized and executed. The program had just the right balance of enough academic hours, off time for reading or working and then free time for socializing. The fact that it was held at a castle, a bit out of town, also gave it a great campus feels. If you have the privilege of this wonderful opportunity to meet and interact with about 22 different nationalities you really want to drink in every moment! Free time was spent having coffee, playing badminton, volley ball, table tennis or lounging around the pool. And when do not forget karaoke! All in all, the summer school receives a standing ovation!
- NB: This being said, there is a very important point to discuss. In general the summer school unfortunately did not meet all of my academic expectations. I do not believe that this was anybody’s fault. The thing is, when reading the description of the summer school material I was excited to relate the South African emerging economy perspective on sustainability with that of an emerging South America (read Brazil) and the developed North America. This however presented two problems:
- I had the impression that the seminar would primarily be on sustainability and the Americas would just be used as a case study. The reality was however that the seminar (and morning lectures) was on the Americas and sustainability was just used as a point of discussion. This is a big difference. Most of the students at the summer school were studying a field related to American studies. This made it difficult to find a common ground with my academic angle of Corporate Sustainability. In the future there should be discussion on the academic fields from the Stellenbosch side that attend this specific summer school, because it has a very strong focus on the Americas. The fields of literature, economics, sustainability, etc are used to primarily discuss the Americas. Of course I still learned so much and the experience as a whole was invaluable. I just believe that somebody with an academic link to the Americas could have gotten a lot more value specifically out of the academic material covered.
- Secondly, the field of sustainability is an immensely broad construct. In the structure of the two weeks material there was not really a link between the two topics. A subject like literature or economics will always connect somewhere whatever topic you discuss within that subject. Within the subject of sustainability however the application has become so wide that it is easily possible to cover two topics under the theme of “Sustainability” without there being a coherent link between the two topics.
- Lastly, I believe that the standard of Stellenbosch’s academic material, presentation and class structure are top notch and aligned with the international standards that I experienced.
Returning home was nowhere near bitter sweet. The time in Europe changed my perspective on so many things. I had the opportunity to make friends with people from countries I could not even place on the world map. One of my new Serbian friends summed it up perfectly: “An experience that turns places into people”. I now have the privilege of unforgettable memories with a Kazak friend and a visit to a friend’s home in Bratislava. One of the main believes I brought back to my life in Stellenbosch is that we make too big of a deal about cultural differences. Cultural differences are to be celebrated! It is the personality differences that mostly present the problem. In South Africa, and especially Stellenbosch, I believe we often use cultural differences as an easy way out to not make an effort to get out of your comfort zone and invite people with different experiences, backgrounds and languages into your world. When I met somebody in Europe, from wherever, that I got along with but did not necessarily make friends with I contributed it to difference in personalities. You just don’t click, it happens. But so often in South Africa these mere personal differences with one or two people from a different culture becomes a person’s whole framework for not being open to really inviting somebody with that background into your life. Not a friendly acquaintance or just a housemate, but a friend. We use cultural differences as an easy defence for prejudice. I made friends with a person from Slovakia and Kazakhstan. That is quite a diverse range of cultures, languages and perspectives. But I had more in common with them than I have with hundreds of white, Afrikaans, South Africans that grew up in the same context as I did. When I came back to Stellenbosch I had an excitement to discover the friends I have missed due to my kingdom of comfort. White, Black, Brown, Asian, whatever.
If I wasn’t 6th year already and finally heading out of Stellenbosch, the summer school would definitely have motivated me to go on a longer exchange program. This is an invaluable experience that does not only develop your set of academic skills, but contributes to moulding individuals that are open to the questions and challenges of the world and prepared to work towards being the change they want to see.