Before leaving for Belgium, my main points of administration were (1) selecting modules and finalizing my learning agreement, (2) booking airplane tickets, (3) arranging accommodation, and (4) applying for a Visa.
Because I was a post-graduate engineering student that already completed compulsory course work and submitted my thesis before leaving for Belgium, I was able to select any modules of my choice and I had not minimum credits to fulfill. Ultimately, I shortened my time abroad to three months by selecting two engineering modules that had no written exam and a language course in Dutch that I could complete in three months exactly. I will elaborate more on the modules later. Ghent University approved my learning agreement under these circumstances.
I was able to book a return ticket through Emirates who allowed 2 x 23 kg bags per passenger, which was very convenient. The cost of my return ticket was about R7 500 and I booked the ticket close to two months in advance.
An e-mail from Ghent university confirming my acceptance provided me with a link for university accommodation especially allocated for exchange students. Using this link, I applied to one of four houses and I was fortunate enough to get a spot, as I later discovered, many students were not. I was placed in Home Groningen and I applied about four months in advance to receive this accommodation.
I applied for a Schengen visa at the Consulate-General of Belgium located in Cape Town. I had to apply for a long stay visa (>3 months), which required police clearance, as well as medical clearance from one of six possible doctors in the Cape Town area (they provided me with a list of doctors). I applied for police clearance at the local police station in Stellenbosch (in person) by providing my passport and a completed form. I waited 3 to 4 weeks to receive my clearance papers. I had to take my clearance papers to SU International at Stellenbosch University, who arranged for a further special seal of approval (apostille) for the clearance from received. This is a prerequisite for the visa application. This took another two to three weeks, but the consulate accepted all other application documents while I was waiting for my final police clearance form to arrive. Additionally, I had to show that I had enough funding for about 275 EUR per month (excluding my accommodation bursary) for a successful visa application. Once all the necessary documents were submitted, the consulate took two weeks to approve and provide me with my visa.
As a tip for future students applying at the Consulate-General of Belgium, the consulate is located in the Standard-bank building in the heart of Cape Town, so parking can be very hard to find. When you are close to the consulate (assuming you are using a GPS navigation), search ‘parkade’ and select the first option, which will lead you to a tall building where any visitors in Cape Town can park from the 4th floor upward. The parkade building is then also less than 5 minutes walking distance from the building you are looking for.
Experience at Host University:
During my exchange, I completed the biomedical engineering courses on ‘Computational Biomechanics’ and ‘From Medical Image to Computational Model’. Both courses involved project work that had to be completed in the form of a report and presentation for examination. I had to attend weekly lessons for both courses, in addition to preparing weekly progress presentations for the medical Image to computational model course. Neither course required a written exam. Both courses had less than 10 students per class, and the Medical Image to Computational Model course was very well structured with lecturers that made a point of assisting student throughout the coarse of the semester. This was less the case with the Computational Biomechanics course, but the students attending the course came together each week to help each and ultimately, we all of us passed the course with flying colors.
The project work with no examination structure of the courses was similar to most of the post- graduate engineering courses I completed at Stellenbosch University. On the other hand, the courses at Ghent University were more focused on biomedical engineering specifically, whereas courses at Stellenbosch University focused more on mechanical/mechatronic engineering work. This is because biomedical engineering is a post-graduate degree at Ghent University, but at Stellenbosch University you can only specialize in biomedical engineering through a master’s in mechanical or mechatronic engineering. This was one of the biggest advantages of completing biomedical engineering courses as Ghent University.
In addition to my engineering course work, I completed a Dutch course specifically designed for semester exchange students. Ghent University offered this course to exchange students at a discounted cost of 50 EUR per student. It involved attending one, 3-hour lesson every week for 12 weeks, and they provided us with a folder with all the course work as part of the 50 EUR fee. The course was very well structured, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning Dutch Level 1.
All-in-all, I am very happy with the courses I selected, and I know that each course will contribute toward my CV for local/international biomedical engineering job applications to come.
As part of my accommodation in Home Groningen, I received a very spacious room (furnished) with my own en suite bathroom and internet through Ethernet cable connection. I shared a kitchen with other student livings on my floor and this was how I came to make AMAZING new friends during my exchange. I have countless memories of social gatherings in the kitchen where we would have dinner together and laugh/talk until the early hours of the morning. We also arranged trips to Paris, France and Cologne, Germany as a group, which resulted in memories that are forever engraved in my heart. The trips were definitely the highlight of my exchange. I got to experience BEAUTIFUL new places such as the Eiffel Tower, Disney land Paris, and the amazing Christmas markets of Cologne, all while having the time of my life with great new friends. Below are a few photos of my accommodation and travel experiences.
Return to Stellenbosch:
Returning to South Africa was a joyous occasion for me. I am a family person so three months abroad was the perfect amount of time for me to break free and enjoy a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was not too short to not experience enough, but not too long to miss my family and friends too much. I could also return to South Africa just in time for the Christmas holidays, which was exactly what I wanted. Therefore, my transition back into South African living was very easy. My time abroad did, however, open my eyes to the endless places there are to see in even just a little European town such as Ghent. I never realized just how much the world has to offer through travel and my exchange has definitely encouraged me to aim for another travel experience abroad. From the fun stories I heard during my exchange, I would say Brazil and/or Budapest are next on my list of places to see.
As final two pointers, if you apply for and receive a residence card from the local municipality in Belgium during your exchange, remember to return to the municipality a few days before leaving Belgium to notify them that you are leavening permanently. They have to cancel you residency and reclaim your residence card beforehand. If you neglect to do this, it may cause problems if you want to travel to Belgium or another European country in the future. Also, if you open a bank account during your exchange (which I would highly recommend as many shops only accepted ‘bankcontact’ and not Mastercard), try and close your account before you leave Belgium if possible. It is a mission to transfer remaining money and close the account once you have returned to South Africa. I banked with BNP Paribas Fortis during my exchange. They offered a great deal of no bank fees for students under 25 years, and their service was very good. I am, however, struggling to close my account as I did not close my account in person before a left Belgium.
I have absolutely no regrets for partaking in the semester exchange program and, if I could, I would partake in another. I highly recommend the experience for any student considering it, and for me personally, Belgium was a treat and I would recommend it for any student looking to make great friends and travel Europe in a few months: Belgium is perfectly located close to many European countries that are typically tourist favorites.