Where to begin?!
“Resfeber (n.) the tangled experience of fear and excitement before a journey begins”.
Planning and organising the exchange took the most effort and time.
However, once this is sorted only good things follow. Here are some tips:
- Why I chose Abo?
Finland is “random” in the sense that it is not your typical European choice. But that is exactly why I wanted to go there. Abo Akademie has an amazing Human Rights Law Institute (my interests), but it also provided student accommodation (which is included in the bursary). Having been in a hostel at Stellenbosch, I knew this would help me make more friends and experience different cultures outside that of Finland.
- The Temporary residence permit.
This is the first thing to do, after you have been approved to go. Although the visa application process seems like it requires a lot of effort since you must travel to Pretoria for the appointment at their Embassy, it is quite a smooth process. Stellenbosch does provide financial assistance to get there. Remember to make sure that all the documents (including Stellenbosch University’s documents) must be in English. Once the permit is granted, you are basically good to go.
- Subject choices
Do not stress to much about this. I was very unsure of what I wanted to pick as there were so many options. Although I did decide, when I arrived at the host university it was very easy to change or amend my subject choices. It is also possible to take extra classes if you have the time. I would recommend this.
Don’t think twice about it. Accidents do happen (I broke my ankle during my exchange) and without insurance you would have to pay for everything! I cannot stress the importance of this enough. SIP is a rather good option to take. Usually your South African medical aid will cover up to 90 days overseas, so I bought SIP for the remaining time (you pay per day).
The cash-factor is always something to consider. It was also why I chose Abo, since it and Stellenbosch International Office provided a comfortable bursary. However, you will need to take extra if you would like to travel and explore Finland and its surrounding countries. I did not go with much, but I was able to go to Russia, Estonia, Sweden and Copenhagen.
Pack only the basics. You will want to buy clothes there — especially a winter coat! So rather leave space in your bag to bring things back, or pack what you would not mind throwing away when you leave. Also, spoil yourself with a good bottle or two of hard liquor. Finland’s alcohol is super expensive.
“Serendipity (n.) finding something good without looking for it”
I find it quite difficult to summarize my experience. Here are some important factors to note when considering Finland, Turku and Abo Akademie as your choice for exchange:
- Abo Akademie
It is a very small university with about 7000 students only. The reason being that it is a Swedish speaking university (Swedish is a minority language of Finland). But, don’t let this scare you off. It is much easier to make friends in class and to communicate with lecturers as well.
Another great aspect is that Abo has about 6 cafeterias, each with a different menu daily, where you can get cheap lunch everyday (2.60€ per meal). In addition, they are healthy and you can dish quite a large portion.
Abo’s international office is also very helpful, and occasionally organises student events. They assist you with placement in the nearby student village – which I think made my exchange the best. I stayed in an apartment walking distance from Abo with my own bedroom and bathroom. The kitchen is shared with 10 other students on your floor. But, don’t let this change your mind. That kitchen is where you meet and make your new exchange friends. They become your family – this is no exaggeration.
Finland is a beautiful country. When I arrived, it was breathtakingly green – an awesome time to go on hikes to experience the astonishing nature. For example, we all took our bicycles and cycled over an hour to a nearby island (Finland has the world’s largest archipelago) called Saaronniemi. This is a must if you go. Make sure you do this soon, since the days only become shorter and colder.
Many people warned me about the lack of sun shining towards the end of the exchange. Yes, it is weird when you write an exam at 8 in the morning and when you walk out at 9:30 you get to watch the sun rise, but I can honestly say this never affected me like everyone said it would.
Another great thing about Finland is Lapland and the northern lights–a cherry on the cake!
Just because Finland is not in central Europe does not mean you cannot see other countries – on the contrary, you get to see countries that you would not generally go to before! As mentioned before, I was able to see a few countries on my limited budget. If you can, I would suggest Poland (Turku airport and Poland have good deals) and other eastern European countries, return tickets start at 30€! Norway is also a good option. So, if you save beforehand, you can experience more than what you think.
“Fernweh (n.) an ache for distant places; the craving for travel”.
Can I go back?!
The Finnish and exchange experiences was the most self-enriching decision I have ever made. I cannot thank Stellenbosch University and Abo Akademie enough for the opportunity they offered. I learnt a lot about myself and others–a true gift. Coming back was bitter-sweet, and the post-exchange low is a thing! Point it is, will I do it over again? Yes. Will I recommend it to others? Most definitely! Will I do something similar again? I have no doubt about it!
If you are considering this exchange – or any exchange for that matter – do what you must to make it happen.
You owe it to yourself.