Going abroad can be very exciting but also overwhelming. However, preparation and planning can help reduce any uncertainties that you might face. Try to prepare everything that you can from this side, but do not worry if you don’t have everything figured out before you leave for your exchange semester – you will learn a lot while you are there and that is part of the experience. Some important things to have sorted out are your visa, your accommodation, flight tickets, insurance and the subjects you want to take. Maastricht University does the visa application on your behalf. They will communicate to you which documents you must send to them and they will then apply for your visa. They will inform you once your visa has been approved and you then need to make an appointment at the Dutch Embassy to collect your visa. Applying for your visa is therefore not difficult and the university makes sure to start with the process early enough to ensure that your visa arrives in time before you leave. Finding accommodation is also an easy process. One can go to Maastricht Housing’s website to see what options they have available. There you can see pictures, prices and locations of the different accommodation options, and you can book a room through the site. Flight tickets are also not complicated to sort out. I chose a direct flight with KLM from Cape Town to Amsterdam. Book your tickets in advance since they are much cheaper than booking it two months before you leave. I would recommend having medical insurance for the duration of your stay. This is just to give you peace of mind should something happen – hospitals and doctors are very expensive in Europe. I arranged my medical insurance through a travel agent that gave us advice on what the best cover option is. Once I arrived in Maastricht the Dutch Bank that I used while there, ING, recommended that I get insurance for any accidents and property damage. This insurance was cheap and since you will be cycling a lot, it is good to be covered against any accidents that might happen while you are cycling around.
Maastricht University has a lot of information available to exchange students on the SBE page. You go to the exchange page and there you can find information about the university calendar, accommodation, insurance, where to hire a bike, subjects, etc. This is the link: https://www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/education/exchange/sbe. Most important is that you find course information through their course data base. Here you have the list of courses you can choose from, their descriptions and their prerequisites. This was very helpful in selecting courses. Make sure to register for your subjects before the deadline. Maastricht will inform you about the deadline.
If you have these things sorted before you leave, you will be more than prepared when you arrive there. The rest of the things such as creating a bank account, getting a bike and university related stuff will be sorted out as you arrive. The university is very helpful and organised.
Experience at the Host University:
Maastricht University’s business school, SBE, is a triple accredited school. The way of teaching is very different from Stellenbosch since they make use of something called PBL – problem based learning. This means that learning takes place through problem solving and discussion of problems. Classes take the form of tutorial sessions where there are a maximum of 15 students in one tutorial group. Some subjects, for example subjects that involve mathematics, may combine normal lectures as we know it with these tut classes, but most subjects only make use of the tut classes. In these classes there is a tutor that facilitates the session and ensures that everything is covered, but the students lead the discussion. This means that you have to prepare for every class and actively participate in each class by asking questions and contributing to the discussions. Sometimes you are divided in groups and each group then gets a chance to present a section of the work. Giving presentations is the norm at SBE. The PBL system definitely challenged me in a lot of ways, but I learned so much. Getting out of my comfort zone and having to contribute and participate in classes helped me to understand the content of the work better and also delve deeper than just the textbook theory.
At Maastricht University the semester is divided into three periods – period 1, 2 and 3. In the first period you have two subjects and at the end of the period there is a week of exams and you complete the two subjects. In the next period, period two, you have another two subjects and also write exams at the end of the period. Period three is a skills period where you have one subject for two weeks. This subject is a skills subject, for example presentations skills, interview skills, excel for finance, etc. Although the courses are intensive, it is nice to only have two subjects at a time and not six as we are used to.
Maastricht is a beautiful city. There are a lot of cafes, restaurants and shops. Getting around is very easy, since you can use your bike or the bus. Maastricht’s location is also ideal for traveling since it is very close to both the Belgium and Germany borders. I spent a lot of time exploring the city itself, as well as nearby cities. Doing day trips to other cities is easy with the trains that are available. Understanding the Dutch language was not a problem for me since my home language is Afrikaans, which is very close to Dutch. Most of the people can speak English. Furthermore, in Maastricht you will not only encounter Dutch people, since the university is a very international university and people from all nationalities fill the streets of Maastricht. I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the city and would choose Maastricht again if I could.
Returning to Stellenbosch:
I was excited to return to Stellenbosch. The exchange was a wonderful experience, but after five months it was time to come home to my family and friends. Coming back and getting into routine in Stellenbosch was not a challenge for me. It was nice to come back and share my experiences and stories with my friends. It was also nice to hear the stories of my fellow International Business students’ exchange experience. I am excited to apply the things I learned in Maastricht to my studies at Stellenbosch. I love the student life of Stellenbosch and am looking forward to this year.
Something that I realised is that South Africa is not as behind with certain things as most people think. For example, our awareness of waste and sustainable living is higher in certain areas, and Stellenbosch’s facilities are just as good as Maastricht’s facilities. However, we still have a long way to go with transport infrastructure and we can learn a lot from the Dutch system. Another thing is that the cost of living is much lower in South Africa than in Europe – it is very expensive over there. So another plus point on returning to South Africa is that everything is much more affordable.
I have definitely grown a lot while being abroad and it is an experience I will never forget. I will also encourage students to go abroad if they have the opportunity to do so. Although I loved the experience, for now I am planning to stay in Stellenbosch and complete my studies here. In the future, I might go abroad to work for a year.