Natalie at Maastricht University, the Netherlands

Magical Maastricht:

I have just returned from an amazing quarter exchange in the School of Business and Economics at Maastricht University where I was able to do some of my elective courses for my masters in economics. I can honestly say that it was one of the best decisions that I could have made in terms of my personal growth as well as the degree of academic exposure that I received. Here are some of my thoughts about my time overseas.


I did a lot of research before I went on exchange. I had an excel spreadsheet with a number of columns including the country and city in which the university was in, term dates, the average temperature for the time that I was going to be there, who I had connection with in and around the country, whether the courses would be in English, and even whether or not there had been terrorist activity there (I had to present a valid argument as to why it would the best and safest place to go). My spreadsheet didn’t do much besides calm my nerves and help me to focus on where I wanted to go.

My decision was almost purely based on the fact that Maastricht had term- and not semester-long courses because I needed to be back by April. Both Stellenbosch University and Maastricht University made it very easy to get all of my needed documents in place and apply for everything in time. I went overseas a month prior to the start of the term, simply for traveling reasons, and had to apply for a visa almost immediately after receiving word that I had been accepted to Maastricht. This made it a bit stressful, because my planned departure date was within 8 weeks of finding out that I was accepted. In order to make sure that everything arrived at my host university quickly, I found out prior to being accepted what documents I would need and made sure that I used a courier service to get the documents there (normal postal services are generally not as reliable as we would like them to be). Maastricht is amazing in terms of communication and every time I had a question, it would quickly be answered.

Stellenbosch and Maastricht also have an agreement in terms of housing, so I didn’t have to stress about finding accommodation, which helped a lot! I also did a lot of research in terms of my subject choice; I mean, a term is a long time to be doing a subject that would be useless in the end. It was important for me to make sure that the courses that I took had credits that could be carried over to Stellenbosch. I spend a long time scrolling through the different subject options and whittling it down to something that would be interesting, beneficial and not too difficult (traveling was also something that I wanted to do a lot of while I was there). The last step for me before going was to think about and plan a bit around the places that I wanted to visit while I was there and also to make sure that I had enough money to do so. It is really easy to travel in Europe and most of the flights that I booked cost less than a trip to Johannesburg and back, so travelling was high on my priority list.

Experience at the Host University:

Whilst on exchange I was able to take two subjects (the maximum recommended number of subjects), Human Behaviour and Social Policy (HBSP), and Economic and Social Policy Research (ESPR). HBSP was structured such that there was one lecture and one tutorial per week, each of between 2 and 3 hours. There were a number of articles that had to be prepared before each lecture and three articles that had to be summarized and submitted before each tutorial. Each student had one article that they had to present and criticize during the term. The articles were then discussed during the tutorials. Marks were allocated according to class participation, the quality of the summaries and the presentation. Additionally we had to write a research proposal based on the theory that was taught during the lectures. We were able to present and provide positive criticism for one of our fellow students proposals before their final submission. The lectures consisted of approximately 30 students, and the tutorials had about 15 students.

ESPR consisted of two formal lectures during the term, and the rest of the sessions were tutorials. This subject was focused on econometrics and building an understanding of the theory as well as the practical application of it.  We were required to submit an assignment before each class and would be automatically failed if we didn’t submit more than two assignments during the term. During the tutorial, we discussed the theory upon which the assignment was based, problems that we encountered during the assignment and the correct approach to carrying out the assignment. Additional to the assignments, we had to submit a final group project as well as write an exam. The class had approximately 20 students. In the last two weeks, the class was divided into two streams, one stream with 4 students and the other with the remaining students.

Why did this system work?

Firstly, we received marks for class participation in both the lectures and the tutorials. Secondly, we had to ensure that each week we submitted something, thus ensuring that we prepared for the class. Thirdly, the tutorials are actually run by the students and just facilitated by the lecturer. Emphasis is placed on the skills that are obtained from leading the class discussions or the critical engagement that comes from the setup of the lecture or tutorial. Lastly, I had to have an opinion about everything that we covered in class, and I had to discuss my opinion, otherwise I would fail the course. Being encouraged to debate my opinion made me really need to be able to either defend what I thought or change it, but only after having critically analyzed why I had been challenged. This system definitely worked for me!

Other than that, I stayed in the international hostel, so there were a lot of different people from a lot of different places speaking a lot of different languages, it was great! There were always people wanting to travel or to just go for coffee. I was able to make a really solid group of friends and we traveled together almost every Wednesday and weekend. We made day trips part of the experience and weekend trips something not to be missed out on. It was good for me to have my own room because I have for many years always been surrounded by a community of people, but it was also great to know that there were people willing to get out at anytime.

Return to Stellenbosch University:

To be honest, being back has been quite a challenge for me thus far, but I suspect that that will change over time. For the past four months I have spent the weekend in a new country or town and I have become used to having a lot of freedom to make spontaneous plans. I have also gotten used to being alone for extended periods of time, and so being back with all of my people has at time been quite overwhelming. The first week that I was back in South Africa I actually just stayed at my parents house just to rest and tell them about my adventures. During my second week I managed to leave my phone at home which was great because no one could get hold of me, so I could connect with the people that I really wanted to see.

Now I’m just easing into a form of normal for me. I know that I have grown so much since going on the exchange and I don’t want to take that away. I’ve enjoyed looking through photos and journaling about some of the things that I did. I have a memory book and a journal in which I put a lot of souvenirs from my time away. I also grew in my confidence academically, and so now I’m just trying to ensure that going forwards I still make sure that I am engaged and reading interesting stuff as well as speaking to interesting people about my field of interest. There really is so much time to just do stuff as a student, and so I’m finally learning to prioritize going on adventures and exploring my own country. Going away for the weekend or during the week is actually quite important. I’m also trying to rest a lot and just be and find what normal looks like here again. It sounds airy-fairy, but for me its quite important to just maintain the high from my trip so that I don’t get bored or frustrated by being back.

I really encourage everyone to go on exchange, it is truly such an amazing experience and definitely worth the money, time and investment!