Alicia in a boat

Alicia at North Carolina State University, USA

I have always loved traveling and experiencing different cultures, but finding the time and money to travel is never easy. When I started with my Masters degree in civil engineering, a semester exchange seemed like the perfect opportunity to fully immerse myself in another culture while still being able to spend enough time on my research. And when the opportunity presented itself I fully grabbed it with both hands.


Finding out that I was accepted to partake in a semester exchange to North Carolina State University in the USA was one of the most exciting moments of my life. It was thrilling to imagine living and studying in a foreign country for a whole semester. I already knew I was accepted a few months before the exchange would happen, but out of pure excitement I started planning and researching immediately. I spent days reading up about North Carolina; the people living there, the food, where to travel and what to do. This is something that I definitely recommend doing before going on an exchange. It is important to know all you can about the culture you will become part of as well as the campus and city that you will be living in. It is also smart to have some ideas in mind of where you would like to travel while there.

After being accepted for the exchange by Stellenbosch University, I also had to apply to NC State. This process was fairly easy, since all the information needed was available on the university’s website. Additionally, someone from NC State’s International Office helped me with all my questions. I recommend speaking to other students who have gone on a similar exchange to get some tips for the application process and what to remember. I was the first South African student to take part in an exchange to NC State, so this wasn’t really an option for me. For me the most difficult part of the process was choosing the modules to take during my semester abroad. It is a good idea to consult your academic advisor at Stellenbosch when choosing modules, since they would have a good idea of which modules would be most beneficial for you. When attending NC State, you are required to have adequate medical aid. If you do not take out your own medical aid, the university will automatically provide you with medical aid and you will be charged for it. I found that private medical aid cost me about a quarter of what the university would have charged me, so I would definitely recommend checking out all the options before just accepting the default university-provided services.

As part of the preparation process, I had to apply for a visa for the USA. The application process was very simple. The website of the US embassy clearly explains the types of visas and which you should apply for. Since I would be attending NC State as a student in the USA, I had to apply for a J1 visa. This visa allows students to live in the USA for the semester dates that you will be attending the university. Additionally, you are allowed to enter the USA 30 days before the semester and leave 30 days after the semester has ended. Although these grace periods are nice for travelling, I did not make use of it, since supporting yourself in the USA can be quite expensive. It is important to note that you can only apply for your J1 visa after you have received an invitation letter from your host university in the USA. After you have the invitation letter though, it is almost a sure thing that your visa application will be approved. I filled out an application form online and a few weeks later I attended a visa appointment in Cape Town at the US Embassy. About a week after the appointment I received my visa. It was very exciting to get my passport back with a visa in it. It was finally starting to feel like the exchange would really happen!

Experience at NC State:

Getting there

My departure to the USA started of pretty shaky. My flight was the last flight to leave from Cape Town International Airport on 7 August. After the boarding time came and went without a boarding call, I knew something was wrong. It turned out that the airplane door was accidentally damaged and our flight was cancelled. After finding out the news, we had to wait in the boarding area for a few hours until the airline finally arranged a few busses to take us to a hotel in the V&A Waterfront. At 5 am I was finally checked into my room. Later that morning, the airline had booked me on a different flight. I was excited to try leaving for a second time. Luckily my second flight actually took off and I arrived in Washington DC via Johannesburg and Senegal after almost 24 hours of flying. Then I just had to take a short 40-minute flight to Raleigh.

American Football Stadium

Orientation week

Since I arrived a day later than planned, I joined the international student orientation of NC State as soon as I arrived in Raleigh. The orientation week was very informative. We walked around campus, attended many information sessions and played games. They also took us to Target, a very popular chain of stores in the USA, to buy whatever we needed. It was on this trip that I offered to help some British students to carry their stuff. This simple act of kindness led to me meeting some of the best friends I made while in the USA. It is important to interact with as many people during the first few days as possible, since many other people are new as well.


While at NC State, I lived in university housing on campus. As part of the exchange, I received a housing allowance if I stayed in university housing. I had the option to pay about R3 000 extra for the semester to stay in a single room and I decided to choose this option. This allowed me to have some privacy when I needed it. This was important for me, since you need some personal time when you are alone in a foreign country. I lived in a four-person apartment and shared with three American students. This was the first time that I had shared an apartment, and I was quite nervous. It was, however, a lot of fun to share an apartment with American students, since they taught me all I needed to know during my stay there. One of my roommates actually became one of the best friends I have ever made, and we still talk to each other very frequently!

Under a bridge


As part of the exchange, I also received a meal plan to eat on campus. NC State has a great meal plan system. There are different types of meal plans to choose from and I had an all-inclusive meal plan that was valid during the week and weekend. As part of the meal plan, I could eat as much as I wanted at one of the three dining halls on campus for free. Additionally, I could spend about $7 twelve times a week at restaurants that were located on campus without actually paying. I definitely recommend getting a meal plan at NC State, even if it is not included in your exchange agreement. I never had to make food during my stay and it was great to know that I didn’t need to worry about buying groceries or doing dishes!


As a J1 visa holder, I was allowed to work for 20 hours a week for a university-run business on campus. At first, I did not think I would get a job, simply because I would only be there for one semester and I wanted to spend all of my free time exploring. But a few weeks after I arrived, the reality hit that I could only explore if I had enough money. After this realization, I got a job at our residence hall’s convenience store. It was so convenient that my job was in the building right next to my apartment. I could work shifts until 1 am and just walk home in 2 minutes.

Courses and working on my thesis

Since I was actually at NC State for academics, I had to fit in some working as well. While attending, I took three modules. Two of the modules focused on Transportation Engineering and the third focused on Financial Engineering for Managers. These were full-time modules and therefore, I attended classes, did projects and wrote exams. It’s very important to find out what is important to lecturers at your host university. It’s possible that lecturers care much more about some things that your lecturers back home don’t care about. In addition to taking modules, I had a desk space at the Institute of Transportation Research and Education (ITRE). ITRE is a university-associated institute on campus where I could work on my thesis and do research. While at ITRE, transportation experts helped me to analyze my data and helped me with my research.


NC State has an excellent bus system that students and the public can use for free, called the Wolfline. Since I have a car in South Africa, I wasn’t used to using public transport and being without a car. The Wolfline, however, could take me almost everywhere that I needed to go. There were many different bus lines that had bus stops all over campus. There was even a bus stop right outside my residence hall. NC State students could also by an annual pass for the Raleigh city bus service for $5. With the pass, I could travel all over the city and the surrounding area. When I wanted to go out late at night or if I wanted to go to places that the buses didn’t reach, I used Uber.

Other tips

NC State is an extremely safe campus. Their campus police have about the same authority than city police and I always saw police officers walking around on campus. The campus also has big emergency beacons every few metres with a bright blue light on top. There is a button on each beacon that you can press whenever you felt unsafe and police will come to your location right away.

Try to travel as much as possible while abroad. I signed up for many trips and activities that were offered by the university. NC State has a great Outdoor Recreation Centre that offers trips and activities for students to take part in at a special fee. I went canoeing in the Great Smokey Mountains, went climbing on an old abandoned bridge in Virginia and even camped on Carolina Beach. Taking part in trips like these also allows you to get to know many other students.

After about a month in the USA, I really started missing home. It was hard to be completely alone in a strange country where you can’t even speak your own language. Not long after, though, NC State really started feeling like home and I rarely missed anyone back home. By the time I had to come back to South Africa, I really didn’t want to leave. It really helps that we live in a time that we can easily call loved ones and talk to them whenever we want to. Everyone will hit a low-point after a while abroad, but always push through!

Return to Stellenbosch:

It was a very sad day when I had to leave NC State. Sure, I was happy to be returning to my family and friends, but NC State had become my new home and I had made life-long friends. It was hard to come back home and adjust to normal life again. It’s a good idea to do something out of the ordinary before returning to normal life, like taking a short vacation. I found that doing this gave me time to adjust to the way things work back home again.

This study abroad experience has opened my eyes to the wonders of exploring other cultures. It has inspired me to travel as often as possible and see as much of the world as I can. The world is a wonderful place, and it has a lot to offer if we just go and explore.

I have always heard students say that a semester abroad “changed their life”. I used to scoff at this statement, thinking that these people were over exaggerating. But after this experience, I can truly and honestly say that my life has been changed. The young, naïve student that left South Africa in August of 2017 was definitely not the same person that came back to South Africa a few months la