Kelvin at KU Leuven, Belgium


I was extremely excited when I received the news that I was part of a small group of students chosen to study abroad at the summer school in KU Leuven in Belgium! Our group was selected from the Department of Business Management based on academic merit and therefore we did not have to follow the usual application process required for international exchanges. However, the process we followed to prepare for the exchange was otherwise the same. There were a number of small tips and tricks I picked up on to make this period as easy and pain-free as possible.

Some pre-departure tips:

  • Make a Whatsapp group for the group you are going on exchange with
  • Have a list of things that you need to get done before you depart
  • Download the google maps of the areas you will be visiting (The maps will be saved offline and you can use this to navigate the cities even without an internet connection)
  • Have an online folder to keep track of all your documents
  • Book your flights as early as possible to secure the best deals
  • If planning to use your South African bank card, make sure your bank has authorised you to make international withdrawals
  • Make sure to budget a daily spending allowance to ensure you take a sufficient amount of money (budget in a little extra in case of emergencies)
  • Start the visa application process as soon as possible

My first major tip would be to get to know the people in your group that you will be going to the exchange with. Make a Whatsapp group and discuss the planning process together. This was extremely helpful and was also a good way for our group from Stellenbosch to get to know one another before departing for Belgium. We were also able to book flights together and make arrangements regarding our accommodation and other important plans, as a group. The Whatsapp group also proved to be really useful for communicating during the actual exchange. It is however extremely likely that you will create a new group with the people you meet when you arrive at your summer school, and will probably end up using that group to communicate for the majority of the time instead.

My second major tip is to make a list of all the things you need to get done before departing on your adventure. Look at a calendar and make a plan of action for the period leading up to the day that you leave. This way you will be certain to finish everything with as little hassle as possible. I also advise that you create a folder on Google Drive to store all your checklists, application forms and important documents online. This may seem like a waste of time but, it really made the planning process easier and as an added benefit it was comforting to know  that I had all the documents in one place and was able to access them from anywhere in the world.

With regards to the visa application process, I would recommend that you start as soon as you receive all the documents that the embassy requires. The application requirements are easy to find on the embassy websites and it is worthwhile double checking and even triple checking whether or not you meet all the requirements before making the long trip to the Embassy. This is especially important considering that your application will be delayed if there are any inconsistencies.

The International office is extremely helpful throughout the preparation process and I highly recommend contacting them with any questions or issues you may have. I am extremely grateful to the incredible team for all their assistance and advice, and for making the whole process as smooth as possible.

It’s important to remember that the more planning you do before you leave South Africa, the easier things will be when you arrive at your destination. Once all your major planning and preparation is done (flights, accommodation, visa’s etc) it is important to consider the “smaller” details such as what adapters you need, how much money are you going to take, how will you access your money when you are overseas, how you will get your phone connected to the internet, and so on. When packing your bags make sure to be prepared for all types of weather. During our two weeks in Leuven, the weather changed significantly, raining and cold one day, and then sunny and hot the next.

The KU Leuven experience:

If you have the opportunity to travel either before or after the summer school programme, I highly recommend you take advantage of it. I travelled to Ireland and Amsterdam to visit family prior to arriving in Belgium for the summer school, and had such an amazing experience.

On arrival in Leuven, you will be welcomed and given your temporary student card and other important documents regarding the summer school. I arrived one day before the summer school started so that I could explore the city and get settled in before the official start of the course. As a city, you really cannot do much better than Leuven. It is incredibly accessible and really easy to get around. The city itself is a hub of activity and excitement; I guarantee that you will never run out of things to do. KU Leuven is similar to the Stellenbosch campus, in the sense that the actual campus forms part of the city.

Our group was enrolled in a summer school called Europe inside out, and I choose to do the elective modules, doing Business in Europe, and Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The group attending the summer school was very diverse and came from countries such as Spain, Mexico, India, Netherlands, China, Cameroon, England, Germany and Russia. The cultural diversity of our group made the discussions in the classes very interesting. We learnt a great deal about many different cultures, besides the Belgium culture during the course, which made the experience so much more enriching.

The course was extremely interesting and covered a wide range of topics, such as the European Union, European arts,  and many other facinating subjects. The lectures were designed to give us some insight into Europe as a whole and how they do business in an open market. They also taught us about their history and artworks, and many cultural insights. I throughly enjoyed the lectures on Entrepreneurship and Innovation. They were designed in such a way as to ensure a balance between lectures and presentations by industry experts and professors in the field, as well as industry visits to some of the most innovative and cutting edge research and manufacturing companies in Belgium such as IMEC (a company which specialises in nano technology). I studied Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management at Stellenbosch University, so hearing from these experts and being granted access to their companies was a real privilege.

There were also a number of excursions built into the programme, which gave us the opportunity to see more of Belgium and even the Netherlands during our stay. One such excursion was a day in Antwerpen which was a short bus ride away (the nice thing about Belgium is that everything is fairly close). The other trips included a day in  Brussels and a day in Den Hague, during which we visited museums and monuments and  were also given ample free time to explore the cities with our friends.

During the summer in Leuven the sun only goes down at around 10 o’clock each night, which is far later than we are used to in South Africa. This takes a little getting used to, but it also means that there is plenty of time to go exploring when the afternoon classes end. Also during the summer months Leuven hosts various events around the city, so be sure not to miss out on those as they are great fun. Fridays are  exciting days in Leuven during the summer. Every Friday there is a market near the town centre, and in the evenings there are free live music performances at various locations around the city which are definitely worth attending.

Returning to Stellenbosch:

It felt great to land back in South Africa after a month of travelling, but at the same time, it was really hard to say good bye to all my new friends, especially knowing that I will never again experience Leuven the same way as I did during the summer school. I returned home with a great new group of friends from all over the globe and whole range of unforgettable experiences! I will be forever grateful for this truly life-changing experience.

This exchange was one of the best things I have done during my time at Stellenbosch. I have learnt so much about the world and  more about myself. I would love to continue my studies abroad and look forward to exploring new places and meeting new people in the future. When people ask me what the highlight of my trip was, it is extremely difficult to think of any particular memory.

My view of South Africa has not changed too much, but my idea of Europe and other regions of the world most certainly has. I had travelled to Europe before this exchange, however, had never experienced a country in the same way as I did during this summer school. This trip has had a big influence on my future plans. I am hoping to find work abroad once I have finished my honours degree at Stellenbosch University. I had the time of my life during the summer school and would most certainly recommend it to anyone.