Over my years at Stellenbosch I have had a couple of friends that had been on exchange and shared their experiences with me. Hearing their stories made me very eager to go on exchange myself. I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend a summer school in Europe in 2017. I had an incredible time in KU Leuven in Belgium meeting people from all around the world and learning things from a unique perspective. After having attended KU Leuven, I was determined to spend a semester abroad.
In order to make this dream a reality, I set out to start the application process. I started by completing the online application form, which is made available to students on SUNLearn. The application process requires you to complete several stages, such as, deciding where to go, which subjects you want to take and when you would like to go (note that foreign universities often have different semester dates to South Africa). During this process make sure to take note of the deadlines and put a lot of effort into your application.
I spent a lot of time deciding where I wanted to go on exchange. Some of the factors I considered where, access to financial assistance, culture, university, etc. Its important to put a lot of thought into this process as it will ultimately determine where in the world and at which university you will end up. If you struggle with this process you can make an appointment at the international office to get some guidance and advice. However, first make sure to look at other peoples blog posts and SU International’s website, as well as the websites of the institutions you are interested in. It may seem like a momentous task in the moment and be fairly frustrating at times, but it is certainly worth every second once you finally embark on your exchange.
I was extremely excited when I received the news that I was accepted to spend semester abroad at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) in the U.S.A. After receiving my approval, my preparations began. Having already been to summer school the previous year, I more or less already knew what to expect and what needed to get done. From both of these experiences I have made a list of some pre-departure tips that can assist you with your planning and preparations before you head out on exchange.
Some pre-departure tips:
- If you are going on exchange with other students from Stellenbosch, make a Whatsapp group for all the people that you are going on exchange with.
- Have a list of things that you need to get done before you depart (in order of importance).
- Download the google maps of the areas you will be visiting (the maps will be saved offline and you can use this to navigate the cities using GPS even without an internet connection).
- Have an online folder to keep track of all your documents (Google Drive or One Drive).
- Book your flights as early as possible to ensure that you get the best deals.
- If you are planning to use your South African bank card whilst abroad, make sure your bank has authorised you to make international withdrawals (otherwise you can get a travel wallet from your bank or even a local bank card when you arrive at your exchange university).
- Get some local currency to take with you in case you have issues with your card when you first arrive at your location.
- Make sure to budget a spending allowance to ensure you take a sufficient amount of money (in some cases the university will provide you with a food allowance, however you will still need money for other things such as transport, going out etc.)
- Start the visa application process as soon as possible (this process may take longer than expected).
Make a list of all the things you need to get done before departing on your adventure. Look at a calendar and make a plan of action for the period leading right up to the day that you leave. This way you will be certain to finish everything with as little hassle as possible. I also advise that you create a folder on Google Drive to store all your checklists, application forms and important documents online. This may seem like a waste of time but, it really made the planning process easier and it was also comforting to know that I had all the documents in one place and was able to access them from anywhere.
The pre-departure planning and preparation process can be a little overwhelming at times and as much as you prepare there will almost always be some small unexpected things that pop up that require your attention. In my case, I had to ensure that I adhered to the strict medical requirements of the universities in the U.S. I would advise you to check the requirements as soon as you have been accepted and see exactly what is required of you as it takes time to get the necessary injections/immunizations if you require any.
Once all your major planning and preparation is done (flights, accommodation, visa’s etc) it is important to consider the “smaller” details such as what adapters you need, how much money are you going to take, how will you access your money when you are overseas, how you will get your phone connected to the internet, and so on. The International office is extremely helpful throughout the preparation process and I highly recommend contacting them with any questions or issues you may have. I am extremely grateful to the incredible team for all their assistance and advice, and for making the whole process as smooth as possible.
It’s important to remember that the more planning you do before you leave South Africa, the easier things will be when you arrive at your destination.
Time at UNCC:
When the day of your flight finally arrives you will be super excited. Make sure to have everything ready and waiting well before the day of your departure to avoid the anxiety of forgetting something important behind. If you are planning to go to Europe, the time difference is only a couple of hours, however if you are going to America or China, you will probably experience jet lag.
If possible it is always nice to arrive before your programme actually begins to settle in and adjust to the time difference etc.
With both my summer school and my semester abroad, I arrived before the commencement of the actual programs so that I could explore the cities and get settled in. During my semester abroad I was fortunate enough to stay with a host family for the first couple of days. If this is a possibility, I would highly recommend it! Its an incredible way to meet people and get a unique experience.
On arrival at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, we were welcomed and at the start of our orientation program we were given our student cards and other important documents necessary for our stay at the university. The orientation program was extremely usefully for meeting other international students and becoming accustomed to the university before the semester officially started.
The university itself may operate differently to what you are used to at home, so the orientation week provides the perfect opportunity to ask questions and become accustomed to how everything works.
You can also learn about the sports and social activities available on campus, the laws and drinking culture, transportation system, the dinning services etc.
Although I had already been on a summer school program, the semester abroad differed in several ways. When you enroll in a semester abroad program, you are an actual student of the university. Consequently, you will have the same privileges but also the same responsibilities as the local students. You must remember to take note of how the academic procedures etc may differ from Stellenbosch.
Although there are many resources available for you, it is ultimately up to you to make sure that you understand the academic procedures and follow them. Studying abroad offers you the unique opportunity to experience a different approach to learning.
I was extremely fortunate to be enrolled in the MBA program during my exchange. Having already study business and finance for 5 years at Stellenbosch, I was given the opportunity to take MBA modules at the Belk Business School at UNCC. This was such an incredible opportunity as I have always dreamed of doing my MBA one day. My lectures provided a balance between formal lectures and presentations by industry experts and professors in the field. I studied Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management at Stellenbosch University, so hearing from these experts and being able to engage with them was a real privilege.
Although academics are important part of going on exchange, it only forms one part of your overall experience. Making the most of your time abroad requires you to fully immerse yourself in the student experience at the university. There are many ways in which you can get involved. Playing sports, participating in events, voluntering etc. Getting involved in the university life is a great way to make friends (both local and other internationals). Making local friends is a great way to immerse yourself in the culture in the area where you are on exchange. Local students know the best places to visit and they will often have cars etc to get to places you wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to visit.
Arrival back in South Africa:
I had mixed emotions when leaving UNCC. It felt great to land back in South Africa after a five months abroad, but at the same time, it was really hard to say good bye to all my new friends. Friends that I spent the past five months with. Even friends that are staying on at UNCC that we had to leave behind. However, I returned home with a great new group of friends from all over the globe and whole range of unforgettable experiences!
Although it’s extremely exciting to arrive home and see all your friends and family after so long, you will have to readjust to life at home. If, like me, you crossed many time zones on your return trip, take the necessary time to recover and overcome your jet lag. It may take a couple of days to get used to the time difference. You need to take time to readjust to being home. Getting back into your old routine after being away for so long can be difficult. Especially after everything that you have just experienced. It’s important to keep in touch with the friends you made while you were abroad. It also helps to get back into your old routines; gym, sport etc.
I have been fortunate enough to have travelled before, but his exchange offered me so much more. Going on exchnage to UNCC was most certainly one of the best things I have done during my time at Stellenbosch. I have learnt so much about the world and about myself. I would love to go abroad to work in the future. I look forward to exploring new places and meeting new people. When people ask me what the highlight of my trip was, it is extremely difficult to think of any particular memory. The experience as a whole was truly remarkable.
I will be forever grateful for this truly life-changing experience. I had the time of my life during my semester abroad and would most certainly recommend the exchange program to anyone.