If you have ever wondered whether it is good idea to do an semester exchange abroad, let me tell you – there is nothing to wonder about, it is a must do! As most other students studying at Stellenbosch University, I absolutely love it. I have great friends, walking down Victoria street is one of the most beautiful views one will ever have and it is just a good old student town with a “lekker” vibe. So why would I want to leave all of this behind to go to another university, not even in South Africa, but a country abroad? This puzzled me for quite a while, but in the end I decided to take a leap of faith and commit to doing a semester exchange in Germany at the ESB Business School of Reutlingen University.
First of all, I cannot stress enough the importance of admin related to planning a semester abroad, and we all know: no visa = no travel. So if you are planning on doing a semester exchange, it is important to consider all your options and decide on the most suitable exchange for you. This is of course bearing in mind what you want to achieve during your semester abroad. Is it for academic reasons, just to travel of a little mixture of both? After this, all the paperwork starts. It is important to take note of all the required documents from both the International Offices of Stellenbosch University as well as your host university. And also be sure to meet all the required deadlines. It becomes a juggle between university administration and then visa application requirements, as one often needs documentation from your host university in order to be able to apply for your student visa.
It is important that you make sure you are aware of all the documentation required by the consulate of the country you are planning to visits, as it might differ and some are stricter than others. And I cannot stress enough how important it is to start this process as early as possible, just as a prerequisite to avoid unwanted stress before you leave (P.S. I got my visa one day before my flight departed and I can tell you, it was stressful). I have found the website of the German consulate quite helpful, except the details regarding the financial requirements that will allow me to stay in Germany for 6 months. It is important to fully understand all the detail surrounding the requirements and if you are not 100% sure, just call and ask for assistance rather than rocking up for your visa appointment, leaving disappointed and having to go back for another appointment because of insufficient documentation. And while we are on this topic, make sure you have 2 copies of all the required documents just in case (and usually the information provided by the consulate will state how many of each document is required for the visa application process). Also, before leaving South Africa, make sure all your travel documents is backed up on the cloud.
Flight bookings can also be quite a challenges, as they often cost a pretty penny. My advice is to check flights online every day well in advance of your expected departure date. You will easily pick up the trend of flight costs and be able to spot a good one when you see it. It is important to note that airlines have different limits to the amount of baggage and the weight of baggage allowed. Keep this in mind when planning what you going to pack.
Visiting Europe during winter can be quite challenging, as the weather is completely different than South African winter weather. Be sure to prioritise the clothing you are planning on taking along, as I have realised I have packed way to much clothing items. Important to note that layering of clothes is the way to go when traveling to Europe during winter, as most building have heating inside and even though it is freezing cold outside, once you enter a building you often overheat if dressed too warmly.
My time abroad:
Being in a foreign country for 6 months is not always just fun and games, especially with a bit of a language barrier! So my first advice would be, know a few basic German words that can help you to get your way around.
Being from South Africa, I think the thing that was really the greatest but also challenging to get used to was the public transport system. It is a very convenient (not always the cheapest) way to get around and most important routes are covered. Longer distances can easily be travelled by train or a cheaper option would be the Flix bus. However, since the day I have arrived I have always caught myself running to catch the train or bus. So be sure that you know what time the connection is you want to take and also make sure you know where you have to be (i.e. the station bay or platform number). In Reutlingen, the semester transport ticket is quite useful as it allows you to take all busses and train for free within the region, everyday all day. This was a useful tip I got from some local students I met when moving into the dormitory where I stayed. This brings me to my next point – make new local friends as soon as possible. This is quite useful when settling in as they provide good tips on where to buy the things you need and they often also share some other useful tips.
Dorm life was great! I don’t know about you, but I have been in res for 3 years in Stellenbosch and coming to Germany the accommodation setup works completely different. I lived in a dormitory with 7 floors, each floor accommodating 18 people. Most challenging thing – we shared one kitchen. Living with 17 other people from all around the world (including Pakistan, Bangladesh, USA, Malaysia and Australia) as well as local Germans gave me the opportunity to get to know so many new people, all having different culture and learning me so much about life. Even though it was sometimes challenging to live with so many people, I have made great friends and will not trade this experience for anything in the world. On a more academic note: Reutlingen is a hochschule, which means it is more orientated on applied sciences and industry focus. Most people completing their full time studies here have to do a compulsory semester exchange of some sort and also work within their respective industry during their studies. All my lectures were offered in English, and as it was on masters level, the classes were quite small (around 8-12 people). All the courses are very industry orientated and really helped me to expand my academic views and knowledge. Another useful add-on was the German course I enrolled in. Even though it was just German A1.1 (which is the easiest and most basic German course), it was really helpful to learn a bit more German as I could understand a lot more during German conversations and I was even able to speak some German here and there.
There is never a dull moment when you are abroad as there is always something to do or a place to see. Reutlingen itself is a very centrally located town, as it is near to Stuttgart, Munich is easily accessible as well as the Alps and the Black Forest. There are a few shops and pubs to visit and Tübingen, which is only 10 minutes by train, has a great night life. As for daily activities, Reutlingen is great for sports and nature. It has a sports park located directly behind the hochschule. Here you find some nice running/walking routes and even a forest exercise trail. Doing sports during cold winter months can be quite a challenge, but having great scenery makes it worth it. The best time was during autumn, as the whole forest turns into a colourful scene of beautiful reds and oranges – the most beautiful thing I have ever seen! Germany is also known for all its castles (schloss in German), which is great for sightseeing when visiting German town. I must say, my favourite was definitely Schloss Heidelberg as the castle’s ruin towers majestically above the rooftops of the old town.
Of course winter is exciting too, I mean seeing snow falling for the first time creates huge excitement. I can truly say that being in a totally different winter climate than we have in South Africa was great. Just remember to grab some gloves, a pair of good leather boots and a warm jacket when going out in the snow. Winter time in Europe is also a great opportunity to try out skiing or snowboarding. They say: “Skiing is easy to learn, but hard to perfect. Snowboarding is hard to learn, but easier to perfect”. However, I tried skiing and it was not that easy to perfect, but surely a lot of fun and one of the best sporting experiences I have had. There are a lot of ski resorts located within the Black Forest region as well as towards the Austrian border, where one find the Alps. Depending on your level of competency, there are resorts that are cheaper but have easier slopes and vice versa. For beginners, smaller resorts are perfect and one can hire all skiing equipment at the resorts.
One cannot come to Europe and not travel. Doing a semester exchange is a great opportunity to see more of Germany as well as other European countries. I had a great time traveling to France and also spend my time here to see more of Germany. If you are in Germany over the Christmas period, all the Christmas markets are a must do! There is a Christmas market in almost every town, some bigger than the other. It is truly a great experience – small stalls with authentic German food, some sweet treat and of course glühwein which is basically hot wine with some spices in and a perfect hot drink when strolling through the Christmas market in the freezing cold weather.
Completing a semester exchange abroad was truly one of the most amazing and exhilarating experiences. It has made me grown on so many levels – my academics, my character, my “street knowledge” and many more. I have proved to myself that I can adapt to a different lifestyle, connect with people from different cultures and most of all, I have established just hope lucky I am to be a South African. Experiencing Europe was wonderful, but 6 months away from home, away from my family and friends and everything else that is dear to me, made me realise how privileged I am to live in South Africa and study at Stellenbosch University.
Never be scared to broaden you horizon and experience the world in a different perspective – take a leap of faith and apply for an exchange semester abroad!