Liezel at KU Leuven, Belgium

The reason:

Let me start of with a caveat: I’m not your typical student. I’m 35 and in my third year of studies. In my previous life as part of the workforce, having 21 days annual leave was the norm. With never-ending deadlines, taking full advantage of this was a challenge and at the end of the year I always ended up carrying over some unused leave days.

Imagine then the complete mind-shift when I became a fulltime student again with an average of approximately 12 weeks holiday per year. The concept was daunting. What was I going to do with all this time? I’m married and my husband still has to work, so long romantic vacations were not on the cards. Plus, of course, I don’t have the luxury anymore of saving up a salary for a fun-filled getaway to somewhere exotic. I definitely also didn’t just want to sit at home reading or binge watching series. No: I wanted to use this time in a smart way, maximising my four short years of being a full-time student again. I set out to learn as much as I can and challenged myself use this time to postion myself optimally for when I put down my pen during my final exam I’’ll be writing in 2018.

So I made a rough list of things I thought I could keep myself productive with. I must admit, the holidays flew by faster than I expected and though I managed to do many of the things on my list, international exposure was always at the back of my mind. I was looking for an opportunity at the university that could support my hunger for learning.

The research:

I had read in one of the university newsletters about students that were granted overseas study opportunities, but I initially thought that this was reserved for student leaders and select degrees.

I then came across the Stellenbosch University International (SUI) website sometime last year. I became excited as I realised that there were numerous international exchange opportunities and that it was open to students from all areas of study. Initially I thought a semester exchange might be possible, but after contacting our division I realised a summer school will be a better option.

I began looking more closely at the European summer school options and set a reminder for myself to investigate it further closer to the 2017 deadline.

When my exams ended in November 2016, I started trawling the SU I website again. I study dietetics and didn’t see many options in the health sciences field, so I contacted mrs Sarah van der Westhuizen at the SUI, requesting a meeting to find out more. This turned out to be a great decision: Sarah not only explained how the funding works, but also pointed out that there were many summer school courses that could compliment my studies, depending on where I see my career going, even though they might not be specifically offered by a health sciences faculty at the respective universities.

Since I’m interested in stakeholder alignment to enable better health outcomes, I thought a course that included elements of business and politics could be an advantage.

After some more hours spent researching, Belgium’s KU Leuven University’s Europe Inside Out Summer School seemed like a good fit. The university is consistently rated among the top in the world and has an excellent reputation for research and innovation. The modules they offered were in line with my interests and they also happen to have a longstanding academic relationship with Stellenbosch University.

The application and preparation:

I then embarked on the application process. I must admit that for me, this process took some time as I was already emotionally invested in spending my next winter holidays overseas, soaking up sun and information. So I put quite a lot of effort into making the application video and writing the motivation.

For the video, I looked online for references of good application videos. I wrote myself a little script and made a story board of how I thought the video should look like, and then chatted to a friend who does film editing to get some ideas of what footage I should gather. My husband then helped to film me at the various locations we identified, as well while I was saying the script. I Googled a lot of images and free music to slot into the video that were applicable to my script. My friend then digitally stitched it all together for me.

Also remember to ask one or two lecturers who know you well to write a you a referral letter, explaining to them why you see this as a valuable opportunity to further your personal or academic growth. I was lucky that both of the lecturers I approached agreed to send a referral. Overall my division was very supportive when they learned that I wanted to get international exposure.

Once I submitted all the required documents in March, I tried to forget about it. SU International lets you know about four weeks after your application if you’ve been successful. When I received the email confirming that I was selected, I was elated.

I couldn’t start planning just yet, however: KU Leuven had a delay on their side and we only received confirmation and letters for visa application mid-May. The course was scheduled to start 2 July and I still wanted to visit friends in the Netherlands before the program officially started. It’s also advised that you apply for your visa at least 3 weeks before departure, so the the timing was a bit tight. My exams also kicked off around this time, and I had to make sure that I didn’t let the planning interfere too much with my studying.

My solution was to rely on many little lists of everything that needed to be done and then systematically worked my way through them, slotting it in-between my study schedule.

The experience:

I honestly don’t even know where to begin to describe how enriching this experience has been!

Each student could choose two out of six possible modules, and everyone did a core module.

I chose the modules Doing Business with Europe and Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The core module was a crash course in European Union Policy and Politics as well as European History.

Going to Leuven I was a bit apprehensive about what the core module would entail, as I wouldn’t describe myself as a historical or political buff by a long shot. I was scared that my ignorance might show. These fears however turned out to be completely unfounded: the content was fascinating, to say the least, and the brilliant lecturers presented their material in a critical yet basic level, making it non-intimidating but still thought provoking, even for the laymen.

Previously I hadn’t spent much thought on EU trade and social policies and how they were shaped by historical political events (and are still being shaped today), or about the complexities of Brexit. I didn’t know about the challenges the EU faces in trying to bring solidarity not only among it’s member states, but also among the youth. The impact and influence of Trump, Russia and China on the world economy and trade agreements were discussed as well as the EU’s positioning in this environment, among other things. The esteemed pool of lecturers included KU Leuven’s respected academics, Belgium’s top economists, the head of the Belgium EU Commission Representation, a former Belgium politician and political and social impact thought leaders in Europe. Having this calibre of exposure was a thrilling experience in itself.

The module on Innovation and Entrepreneurship stood out as an absolute highlight. We were fortunate to have a presentation at the IMEC institute, a multinational research and development organisation in the field of nanoelectronics and digital technologies. Here we were granted a glimpse into the future of healthcare, communication, data optimisation and the Internet of Things.


A visit to the MINT (meaningful interaction) lab provided insights on how to conduct research on human-computer interaction. The unit consists of a group of multidisciplinary out-of-the-box thinkers and tinkerers that links the human experience to technology.

At the Capricorn Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that annually invests millions into start-up and spin-off businesses, we were introduced to the logistics of taking a research idea and eventually being able to grow it into a product and successful business. It was a huge privilege to be addressed by the seasoned leaders of such a successful investment team.

Mosselen and Frite

Lectures were however not the only activities scheduled: we also had three stimulating day excursions. The first was to Brussels where we had a presentation at the EU Parliament (definitely also a highlight), a visit to the brand new House of European History museum, followed by a lecture at the KU Leuven’s Brussels campus. I also managed to make time to enjoy “mosselen en frites” – the very Belgium delicacy of mussels and chips – in between these activities (timing is everything!).

Peace Palace

The other was to Antwerp, another beautiful Belgium city, and finally to The Hague in the Netherlands. Though the latter was quite a long bus-ride, it was completely worth it: we visited the Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration court where we had an informative guided tour. The gravitas of the enviroment and significance of the Palace was palpable.

Lunch at the Hague

Afterwards one student in our group who studied at The Hague took us to the have a typical Dutch lunch of “gehaktballen en andjivie stamppot” (meatballs with potato, endive and bacon mash), which was a great treat! The trip ended on a more subdued note when we were granted the opportunity to have a discussion with a Syrian refugee at the The Humanity House Museum, which allowed us a rare glimpse into what it means to flee from your country and leave your family behind in a bid not to be forced to pick up arms and kill your fellow countrymen.

Bruges, The Venice of the North

On one of the weekend days I decided to visit Bruges, the so-called Venice of Belgium. I joined a free walking-tour and got to see many of this touristy city’s great attractions. On the same day I also took a stopover in Knokke, one of the popular beach cities in the area. I am however happy to report that it’s not a patch on any of Cape Town’s beaches! Europe can pride themselves on all their museums and historic buildings, but they still don’t come close to our nature!

Knokke, popular beach city

The two weeks sped past extremely fast. On our last day of class we ended with a small ceremony with some snacks and sparkling wine where we were handed our certificates. I was sad that it was over. Though I obviously also missed my husband and home, it was really energising to be exposed to so much new and thought provoking information. And if you weren’t stimulated in class, you were probably engaged in conversation with someone from a different country, learning more about their culture, food or political systems. I had numerous interesting conversations with people from China, Cameroon, South-Korea, Mexico, Spain, the Ukraine, Russia, Argentina and Italy, to name only a few.

Towards the end my brain did feel a bit saturated with information though, and I looked forward to being able to let it all sink in and to assimilate all the information.

Back home:

Arriving back I didn’t immediately have much time for pondering and soaking in my whole experience as I had to attend class the day after I touched down in Cape Town.

I’m planning though to carefully document all my thoughts and texts presented to us during the course of the summer school so that I can synthesise it for practical use.

It would be unfair to compare this learning experience with normal lectures at SU as an international summer school group immediately opens up more funds and opportunities in terms of guest lecturer availability and exposure that isn’t always possible in day-to-day semester classes. I however enjoyed the slightly faster pace and condensed nature of the course as it forces you to really optimise your concentration capacity and level of engagement. I think it made me more focus-fit.

This trip has definitely stretched the limits of what I think about, as well as how I think about it. It has expanded my mind by leaving little breadcrumbs of ideas I can go back to one day when needed.

I would encourage every student with a hunger for learning and a desire to broaden their frame of reference to apply for this experience: it may just change your world, and also help you discover more about your own culture beliefs. As one of the professors said: “You can only be your culture by leaving it.”


Before your apply:

  • Research all the options to find something that will add to your current or future interests. Also be sure to check that the dates don’t clash with your classes or exam timetable.
  • Make the best video you can and remember to ask help from your friends or family. There are loads of tips and resources available for free online.
  • I also read SU International’s tips on dos and don’t for the motivation and videos and made sure I followed the guidelines closely.
  • Book your flights as soon as possible. July is summer in Europe, so it’s their high season and the tickets are a bit more expensive than usual.
  • When applying for your visa, you need to register on a website to make an appointment. You then get a list with various documents you need to bring along to your appointment, like travel insurance, copies of your flight tickets etc. Ticking this off as you gather it makes it easy to keep track of how much you still need to do.

Funding and your budget:

  • Here’s how it works for many the summer schools: there is a fixed amount of funds made available to you by the SUI depending on whether the university you chose includes accommodation as well as the tuition fees. The funds I received from the SUI was enough to cover my flight tickets and accommodation that included breakfast for two weeks. I needed to budget extra for my visa application and enough money to buy other meals (lunch, dinner, ice cream and Belgium waffles!) and expenses (such as train and bus fares to other cities when I went on day trips, and when I visited my friends). It’s easy to work out an estimate of what extra money you’ll need. I was on quite a tight budget and still managed to have a great time.
  • Try to travel a bit before or after the summer school – you don’t know when next you’ll get a free flight to Europe! Look out for weekend or student special when purchasing train tickets – you can often save more than 50% on the ticket which makes it cheaper to explore your surroundings.

In general:

  • Soak up as much info as you can and don’t skip classes. You can sleep late or have beer during the day in South Africa – don’t spoil this opportunity for yourself.
  • Make loads of notes. All the presentations aren’t immediately available and though we didn’t get tested on what we learnt, it really helped me to go back for revision on things I found interesting.
  • Don’t be scared to ask questions in class. The more you participate, the more you get out of the experience.
  • Ask for help as many times as you need to. I have a knack for getting lost in the streets, getting confused at the train stops (sometimes they don’t announce all the stops in English) and misreading a map. I realised once again that people really like to help.
  • Forget what you think you know and go with an open mind.

**Other fun things to do:

  • July is synonymous with festivals in Belgium. There were four music festivals happening during the two weeks of the summer school (including the better known Rock Werchter and Dour festivals), so if you’re going to Leuven next year you might want to have a look to see if you can combine your trip with a one at the start or end of your stay. In Leuven itself the Het Groot Verlof festival kicked off, which meant free bands on Fridays and Saturdays all across the city.
  • It’s also really the truth that beer there is cheaper than coffee (and sometimes bottled water too)! Many of the bars have student specials and happy hours, and some of fancier pubs boast beer menus as thick as books.
  • Since it only gets dark around 10pm in summer, you still have ample time to socialise or take a stroll through the lively city after class.
  • Every Friday there’s also a huge market in one of the squares in Leuven, offering everything from flowers, clothes, fresh cherries, baked goods, second hand books and the like.
  • A group of students also found a salsa club in the city and reported back some serious fun.