I have just experienced one of the most exhilarating, challenging, enjoyable and enriching experiences of my life and the purpose of this blog post is to, through my story, encourage all aspiring exchange students to embark on this journey. I hope this post provides those students who have the opportunity to embark on an exchange, but are still in two minds whether to go through with it or not, with the final encouragement. Like a good Law student should do, I will structure this post in terms of pre-departure experience, my time in Aberdeen and then do a reflection of the experience as a whole.
There is one thing that I have to emphasise from the outset and that is that there is a lot of administration involved with an exchange programme. There is no getting around this. For this reason, I advise any aspiring student to be sure that this is something that you want to do, because you need to be fully committed to the process. For this reason, it is important to look at the possible partner universities and what they provide in terms of benefits and then make a choice on the desired university.
I knew that if I wanted to do an exchange, I wanted to go to the United Kingdom (“UK”). The UK’s legal systems are very similar to ours and apart from this, I really wanted to experience the UK’s culture firsthand. In addition to this, I also have a fascination with Scotland, so when I found out that the University of Aberdeen is a partner university of Stellenbosch University, I knew that I wanted to do this.
Once this choice has been made, it is important to be aware of all the deadlines provided by Stellenbosch University’s International Office and to have an open line of communication with the exchange coordinators. This includes getting the Learning Agreements, application forms, motivational letters and testimonials ready as soon as possible. The academics of Stellenbosch University will naturally keep piling up and for this reason, it is really important to stay on top of all the administration. This is of course and remains throughout, a very exciting process, but it is just important to be aware of the administrative demands.
I must say that I found the exchange coordinators extremely helpful and it was also as if they were excited together with me. As a previous blog post also remarked, the International Office “wants to get you on the exchange”, it is just up to you to bring your part and cooperate with a submission of all the documentation within the provided deadlines. These documents are also extremely important for the visa application. With regard to the visa application, it is a very simple and stress-free process if all the documentation is in order. Also, allow yourself enough time for the visa application just in case something unexpected goes wrong with the process.
I would really like to get into the exciting details about my life-changing experience at Aberdeen, but I lastly just want to give another administrative tip. This tip concerns airplane tickets. I normally book these tickets by myself, but this time around I decided to just pop into the STA Travel Agency in Stellenbosch to enquire whether they do not perhaps have any student specials. They then indeed had a great student deal to get me to Aberdeen and I am very grateful for this. So in addition to getting all of your documentation in order, try to get to one of the travel agencies and enquire whether they perhaps have any student specials available for you.
My time in Aberdeen:
I have throughout thought of this semester exchange as a “package deal” that has the capability of pushing my comfort zone beyond measure and that can develop me holistically. This “package” includes experiencing a foreign culture, travelling, academic growth, establishing a new routine and forging new friendships. In light of this, it was thus important to me to maintain a balanced attitude towards this exchange. Academics should naturally be the main priority, but I truly believe that an experience such as this has the capability of providing so much more.
Arriving in Aberdeen was challenging. The exchange coordinators at the University of Aberdeen were incredible and they did all in their power to make the arriving process as smooth as possible. There is, however, only so much that they can do and the reality is that it remains tough. As soon as this settling in period was over, it just got easier and easier. In this regard, I cannot emphasise friendships enough. I would encourage you to go out as soon as possible and look for friends in your halls of residence/accommodation. There are inevitably a couple of down times on such an exchange, but almost without exception, I always felt better after spending time with my group of friends. They were also very helpful in introducing me to the local Scottish culture and “banter”.
After the initial period, it was time to get use to the new academic standards. I really got a new appreciation for my education at Stellenbosch University. The standard of the education we receive at Stellenbosch, is truly world class and I believe it provides us with a fantastic foundation for anywhere in the world. The first big difference that I found in Aberdeen is that there is a lot bigger focus on individual work. Apart from introductory lectures and a revision lectures, I only had seminars. This required me to do all the reading and preparation by myself and then attend the seminars to improve my work. The lecturers facilitated these seminars and were extremely professional throughout. They were furthermore very approachable and clearly experts in their respective fields. In addition to this, it was also an incredible privilege to attend my classes on the over 500 year old King’s College Campus and to study in the newly built, ultra-modern Sir Duncan Rice Library. These academic experiences and to have been able to do my coursework and write my exams at this University, have provided me with unbelievable academic growth.
I mentioned earlier that an exchange should be viewed as a balanced experience. While I worked very hard academically, I also saw and lived through majestic places and cultures. Aberdeen and especially Old Aberdeen, consists out of cobble stone streets and is filled with traditional Scottish- and Irish pubs. Nearby there is also the quint fishing village of Stonehaven. I was very fortunate to travel further away as well and managed to see Edinburgh, London, Cardiff, Belfast, the Giant’s Causeway and Dublin. As someone who loves history, I found the history between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland fascinating and it is a cultural experience that I would highly recommend. However, out of all the travelling, my favourite moment was when my dad came to visit me and we went to watch the Springboks vs Scotland at Murrayfield. It was a lifelong dream come true and it would probably not have happened had it not been for this exchange programme. Having lived through such an experience, I believe it is important to, at the end of it all, stand back and do some reflection.
Upon reflecting on this experience as a whole, there is a feeling of enourmous thankfulness. I am extremely thankful for being granted such an opportunity that gave me immense personal- and academic growth, enrichment and an opportunity to experience the world. It has opened my eyes to different cultures and different ways of living and this has in turn excited me to hopefully experience more of this somewhere in the future. However, while mentioning the different cultures, I also realised that we share much more similarities with other people than we often think. It is ultimately mostly the same things that make us “tick”.
When looking back, I do not think that I have a different view towards South Africa. To the contrary, people were always very intrigued when I mentioned that I am from South Africa. We have a beautiful, unique and diverse country and we should really embrace and treasure this. Like I mentioned earlier, I am also genuinely thankful for the foundation that South Africa and especially Stellenbosch University has provided for me. This experience made me realise that we do not have to stand back for anyone in the world. We are certainly not inferior and we are capable to make our presence felt anywhere in the world.
One certainly also discovers a lot about oneself through such an exchange programme. It e.g. made me realise that we are often stronger than we think. While having been very excited for this adventure, the three and a half months away from my girlfriend and family seemed quite daunting and like a mountain before me. It might not seem like a long time, but for someone who has not been away from home for too long, this can be challenging. I subsequently have a new appreciation for the value of taking one day at a time and pushing through small goals one by one. One furthermore learns the value of perseverance and determination. It was not always easy to keep up to date with my two year-modules back home through podcasts or to study for the exams in Aberdeen when my friends were already on holiday, but the mantra of “just keep going” carried me through this.
What I am trying to illustrate is that such an experience is predominantly extremely positive, but it is important to be aware of the fact that there will be some down times and some unexpected challenges along the way. While saying this, I firmly believe that this is all part of the “package” that I was speaking about. All of the ups and downs contribute to this journey that ultimately results in extraordinary holistic development. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity that I have been granted and my predominant emotion while writing this, is one of extreme thankfulness.
If you, dear reader, have been afforded the opportunity to attend an exchange programme abroad, but are still unsure whether to embark on this journey or not, I would undoubtedly encourage you to do so and I hope this post has provided you with the final confirmation.