Before I start, there is one thing that should be understood by anyone thinking about going on exchange…you’re going to have to do A LOT of admin during pre-departure. It is thus important that you prepare yourself for it and listen to Sarah to stay within deadlines. I thought Stellenbosch University organises everything for you and you just have to go show your face for your visa application, but boy was I wrong.
After doing all the motivation letters and videos required by Stellenbosch University and being accepted to one of your chosen partner universities (which was KU Leuven in Belgium in my case), you have to get a few things in order before you can make an appointment for you visa application. These include police clearance and the booking of your flight ticket, amongst others. I just name these two since I deem them to be the most time consuming and important.
With regards to the plane tickets, I recommend that you start looking as soon as possible. There are a lot of different platforms where you can enter the dates you wish to fly out and return on, indicating that you would like to receive notifications when the prices are low. Or when there are one-night specials. Examples of such platforms are Cheapflights.com and Facebook. I got lucky with a weekly student special at Qatar Airways when I started looking, leading to me paying half the amount than some of my peers. I don’t know how it works with other consulates, but at the Belgian consulate you can’t apply for your visa without having a plane ticket. And since you should already be applying for your visa 2 months before departure, I recommend that you get on that computer ASAP and start looking for cheap flights. Once you start paying in Euros, you will be glad that you saved some money on your flight tickets. Europe is NOT cheap!
With regards to the police clearance, you should note that it is a very time-consuming process since they first have to send it to Pretoria for approval and then courier it back again. I nearly didn’t get mine in time, leading to a lot of unnecessary stress. So, get on that ASAP as well!
The visa application is fairly straight forward. Just make sure you have all the necessary documentation (which is clearly indicated on their website) and that you make your appointment within 2 months before your departure. After all of this is done, it’s time to start packing! Europe really is very cold in the winter, so make sure you pack a very thick jacket. I bought a snow jacket before departure, and I have never been fonder of anything in my life, especially when I went to Russia. Besides for all the warm clothes you should pack, I would also recommend taking some summer clothes as it was still quite hot in the first few weeks after I landed in Belgium. So, pack those shorts and plakkies, but don’t be alarmed when you receive a few curious looks. Plakkies certainly isn’t as popular in Belgium as in Stellenbosch!
Experience at the Host University:
Upon arrival in Leuven, you will obviously experience various emotions, and everything will be very exciting. KU Leuven has an extremely comprehensive welcoming program, and I will recommend that you try to attend as many events as possible. One event that you certainly can’t miss, is the pub crawl on the first night of orientation week. It is here where I met almost all the people who stuck with me throughout my exchange experience.
Alexandra (also studying Bcom International Business at Stellenbosch University) and I went a few days before orientation week to get our affairs in order, and during this time, we met up with a South African called Pieter. He showed us around and answered some of the many questions we had, proving to be a big help and helping us to settle in nicely in a more informal manner. He is busy with his third year of medical school at KU Leuven, but still goes home to South Africa over holidays. If you’re thinking about going to KU Leuven, I definitely recommend that you meet up with him (I can give you his number). He is always keen to go drink a beer with some South Africans and help out where he can.
The student clubs in Leuven also hosts cantus, which was one of my highlights. For €15, Stella Artois provides unlimited beer and you can enjoy the night with fellow students singing folksongs, including many South African songs. Me and Pieter had to go stand in the front of the cantus of about 200 people and sing along to the song Sarie Marais, which was quite a humbling experience. Before I get to the academics, another big tip is ESN membership. This is an absolute no brainer, since you get amazing deals for only €15 once off. These include great traveling specials, which is vital, since traveling quickly becomes very expensive. You will find their stall at Pangea during welcoming.
Then, academics (since that is the main reason for going on exchange). Since only 2/3’s of your subject choices has to be related to our course, I decided to take subjects I find interesting and which wouldn’t be too time consuming, since I had big traveling plans. I thus chose two history subjects, one subject which only required an open book test and debates (Organisational Behaviour), another which we only had to do 3 projects and debates (no exam) and then one master subject (International Business Strategy) to challenge me a bit. This allowed me to brush up on my debating skills, as well as learning a bit about European history and human behaviour, all whilst leaving enough time for travel.
Upon comparing the standard of Stellenbosch University courses to the exchange courses at KU Leuven, one thing became very clear. Stellenbosch University really does have impeccable, world class academic standards. KU Leuven is rated much higher that Stellenbosch University on World Rankings, but in many situations the work was much less challenging. The group projects are also much smaller and less time consuming. One thing that was more difficult was their metric system, since the exams only counted out of 20 marks, and they indicated the required depth of your answer by lines, not marks. The subjects I took also placed a big importance on debates and debating skills, which is something I haven’t learned that intensely at Stellenbosch University.
With regards to traveling all I can say is do as much as you possibly can. It is so cool to see all the different places and see how the different cultures goes about their daily lives. I am going to need a lot more than 500 words to tell you about all my traveling. So, if you want some traveling tips or just hear how it was, you can contact me.
Return to Stellenbosch:
I believe that my return to South Africa was less emotional than some of my peers. The reason for this is because by parents and some of my best friends came to visit over the December holidays, meaning that the amount of time we didn’t see each other was halved. This definitely helped with the missing of loved ones and contributed to my exceptional exchange experience.
It was, however, so strange to return to South Africa and see everyone again. After I recovered from the jetlag and first few nights out (and caught up on all the gossip obviously), things started to return to normal for me, or at least as close to normal as it is going to get. This is understandable as I had this great, eye opening experience whilst all my friends went about their normal lives as always. It was very comforting to learn that things don’t change whilst you’re overseas. It is, however, important to note that I stayed in touch with (almost) everyone through WhatsApp messages and video calls. I believe it is extremely important to stay in touch with friends and family whilst abroad, even though you’re going to have SO MUCH things going on. Take the time to reply that message or make that call.
One thing that has become abundantly clear after my exchange experience, is my love for South Africa. It really is such a beautiful country with the best, friendliest and most accommodating people I have ever met. Since we grew up here, we take everything South Africa has to offer for granted and we focus on the problems. My exchange experience taught me that every country has its problems and South Africa is no different. We have such a wonderful country and it is sad to see people immigrating overseas in search of greener fields. When taken into account that I visited 9 countries and 19 cities in my time abroad, I feel that it’s safe to say that this is an educated opinion based on a lot of different experiences.
Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed my time abroad and all the life experiences I gained, and I regret nothing. But my exchange did influence my future plans in some ways. I now know that I DEFINITELY don’t want to immigrate or even go work overseas for an extended period of time. I guess it’s safe to say that my experience made me even more patriotic towards my country than I was before. This doesn’t mean that I will never go abroad again. Europe is still a beautiful place and there is so many places I still want to see. I would, however, never again go to Europe in the winter for holiday. The only way I will go back to Europe in the winter is if my job requires me to do so one day or if I go do my post-grad there next year. But the jury is still out on that one. For now, I am just enjoying everything South Africa has to offer to the fullest.