Pre-departure arrangements generally run smoothly with Maastricht University. Once they have approved your exchange application, they will send you a detailed PDF on information that they need from you to apply for your visa and residence permit on your behalf, i.e. they do it for you. Just make sure you thoroughly provide them with exactly what they ask for. Once it is approved by the Dutch Immigration department, they will send you an email saying that your visa has been approved and you can go fetch it at the Dutch Consulate in Cape Town. You should then make an appointment at the consulate through a link Sarah will send you, and go hand in your passport, with your flight tickets and insurance. It takes about 5 business days for them to insert your visa into your passport and then you can go fetch it.
Maastricht has a really cool website portal which you can select the courses that you are interested in. Take your time to ponder on the ones you want to end up taking. Put them in PDF (there is a function for that) and if you struggle to decide, ask one of your lecturers what they would recommend.
When it comes to buying flight tickets, they recommend you not to buy anything before they approve your visa. The thing is just that flights then do become expensive. The chances are really high that nothing will go south if you provide them with exactly what they ask. So, start looking for flights early. Some of my friends who bought flights early got them for half the price I ended up paying because I was too scared to buy before visa approval.
In preparation for Maastricht, I would recommend getting really warm and thick socks along with waterproof and warm shoes. At least one Rain Jacket and maybe 2 warmer jackets and a pair of long johns/leggings and a thermal T-shirt. Also, if you have to buy these things new, look at the prices at Decathelon and see if it isn’t cheaper in Europe. I bought a lot of cheap but good quality at this online store. When packing, also make sure you pack stuff that you definitely will wear. I packed way too much clothes to be rather safe than sorry, and ended up not wearing a lot of them even once.
One of the best decisions I made regarding my exchange is to go au pairing in Spain from June – August. I earned some euros and got to see a new place, make life long friends and truly experience a new culture. It did mean that I had less time with family at home before leaving, but it was so worth it. I used Au Pair World to arrange it. I chose au pairing, because it means your food and accommodation is paid for, whilst if I were to do an internship, I would have to cover that myself.
Experience at the Host University:
I loved the academic programme at Maastricht University. The Problem Based Learning (PBL) system worked great for the subjects I took. It’s really nice to use for subjects that requires the sharing and debating from different perspectives of knowledge. I had Business & Politics in Europe, Management of Organisations, Comparative Management, Global Supply Chain Management and the skills course I took was Introduction to Web Programming with PHP. All of the subjects were really interesting, although Global Supply Chain Management could improve in the learning material provided, and the Skills Course was really bad – would not recommend it. Overall, I also felt that a lot of the material is very Pro-EU biased. I think Stellenbosch provides more unbiased material.
The standard was really do-able. I did better there than I do here in Stellies. You don’t necessarily work more (content), but more frequently and consistently throughout the period to stay up to date with the content in order to participate in PBL classes. Classes are +- 10-15 students from different nationalities. You get graded on an essay/exam, as well as participation (hence you have to prepare for each class) and facilitation/presentation (you will be in a team and be given a session where you lead and facilitate the class). This really teaches you cool skills to manage a group and overcome nervousness with public speaking.
Don’t expect to receive lecture-like input from the tutors. They do sit in the sessions, but hardly contribute. Questions are asked to the whole class and not to them, so your learning is dependent on yourself and your tutorial group. But students that lead the sessions usually do a pretty good job to cover all the examinable content.
I had 8 hours class a week: 2 hours per class and 2 classes per course per week. You will only do 2 courses for a period and write them off after completing an exam. This allows you enough time to go through the material for the next class and prepare for it. I loved having only 2 courses at a time, because it means you can really invest in the subject and master it without trying to juggle too many tasks as is the case at SU. The subject I had didn’t use textbooks, but all of them made use of a selection of articles for each class.
Other than learning, I spent my time with other exchange students that have become close friends. We did a lot of things in Maastricht, like picnics or biking to nearby tourist attractions. I also made a lot of local friends in the local church, Redeemer Maastricht, that I attended. This was also I highlight for me. The people were warm and loving and like a family away from home. They arranged a lot of social activities like beer tastings, picnics, thanksgiving dinner, Christmas activities and other parties. The church probably played the biggest role in my exchange being so memorable. I often had dinner or travelled with the friends I made in the church.
I also travelled a lot while I was there. Maastricht is quite central in Europe, and the last station of the Belgian Railways (Belgian public transport is cheaper than Dutch). So you can travel anywhere in Belgium by train for €8.20 one way. I travelled in Belgium a lot with the other IB South African exchange students. We would meet at someone who lived central and travelled together as a group – would highly recommend trying this. I had my exchange highlights with these travels.
I also visited some of the Dutch cities. Ask around for tips to save money. NS Flex is really cool to adjust your needs for traveling. You can save a lot of money if you use it well.
Lastly, I also visited Krakow in Poland, and I loved it. Look at Ryan Air and Wizz Air cheap flights and plan your travels in advance. I had a 5-day travel to Krakow, and it only cost me €100, all flights, food and accommodation covered for the 5 days there and back. So, plan and enjoy.
Return to Stellenbosch:
Returning to Stellenbosch has been really interesting. Difficult actually. At first there is this sense of euphoria to see all your friends and loved ones again, but when that is over, I started missing it. Also note, it differs a lot from person to person. I have friends, single and dating, who couldn’t wait to come back and are super happy to be back. And then there’s others, like me, who really miss it and can’t wait to go back.
I realized how free I was abroad, and felt like I can really be myself and accepted and embraced that way overseas like I’ve never felt in SA. I’m still trying to figure it out, but I think it’s got to do with our social norms and cultural traditions that makes me feel caged in. I did luckily develop a ‘screw it’ attitude and am fighting hard not to lose the person I have become overseas. I also became very independent and confident in making my own decisions and dealing with the consequences. That itself was super freeing. I used to be really scared of making mistakes, but not anymore. Spontaneous travels also gave me a sense of adventure and living life to the full that I didn’t have before. I was content with routine and boring days, but now I have a hunger to explore and experience. I also couldn’t cook one meal before I left, having eaten at Res in Stellies. Coming back, I am confident in the cooking skills that I was forced to learn to survive. I was taught by exchange students from all over the world how to cook those dishes and that is another great skill I brought home.
The Stellenbosch bubble that people use so much as a cliché has become more apparent to me. You feel like an outsider who sees how thickly it clouds people’s perspectives. South Africans like to complain and share their negativities with everyone, and everyone must know about it, and if you didn’t tell someone in particular then that person is offended etc etc. Small things get people worked up here and the pettiness of it is quite annoying.
The challenge now is not to be prideful or arrogant because you have been so ‘enlightened’ by your exchange experience, and not to make others feel like they have not yet seen. I feel like we have the responsibility to share and teach this to other people who maybe don’t or won’t have the opportunity we had to go abroad.
I am really hoping to do a Masters degree overseas, if I can get a bursary to provide financially for it. For example, I learnt that you don’t need an Honours degree to study a Masters in the Netherlands. It’s something that I will pursue determinedly as this is my biggest desire now. I would love to go back. And I am daily left with this sense of gratitude for the opportunity that came my way and the fact that this experience did happen, and no one can take the memories and experience away from me. It was amazing. It goes faster than you think. Don’t waste time missing home. Go and live it fully.