My semester exchange was at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia. I found the preparation for the trip and the application process to be very admin intensive. It was the first year our faculty had sent a student to HSE, and I was the first SU student to go. I prepared a checklist of the documents I needed, a list of items to pack, a shopping list, and a to-do list. In your last week before you fly, it can quickly become overwhelming and having a checklist of essential items that need to be done and packed helps one to focus. I found it daunting to pack and prepare for a country where I knew the weather, culture, and circumstance would be very different from what I’m used to at home.
I would advise that you keep track of all your appointments in a diary for the entirety of the application and trip so that you do not miss any of the deadlines for paperwork that need to be handed in. During the orientation session, you will be given deadlines for registration and Visa extension, and it is very important not to miss these. If you miss deadlines for paperwork while on the exchange you could be asked to leave the country as Russia has very strict laws on registering foreigners.
Keep copies of all your papers on a Google Drive folder as well as printed copies in a file that you will take with you. As a lot of the admin needs to be done when you arrive in Russia, it is a good idea to make sure you have printed copies of paperwork with you as it will take time for you to find your feet. It is also useful to keep one or two passport sized photographs with you.
The original Visa application in Cape Town at the consulate is quite straightforward if you make sure you have the necessary documents required. My initial application was submitted online, and I could choose a date on which I would go to the consulate in person for my appointment. Stellenbosch University has a shuttle service you can organize to drive you to the consulate and drop you off. At my appointed time I was assisted at the consulate and handed in hard copies of all the requested documents. The consulate will keep your passport and let you know when you can pick up the passport again once they have completed your Visa application. You will follow much the same procedure when you are in Russia for the Visa extension except you will leave your Passport at the HSE Visa offices, and they will hand it back to you once the new Visa is ready. I found that the Visa application cost more than I expected, so keep in mind that you may need to budget a bit more for this. A useful tip I found was that I could apply for the Visa with international travel insurance instead of the recommended Russian health insurance which was a lot more difficult to obtain from South Africa. You can then apply for the Russian health insurance with the assistance of staff at HSE once you are in Russia.
Some Useful Tips:
Before you leave make sure to download applications to your phone which you will frequently use. The main company which provides useful mobile applications in Russia is Yandex. Frequently used applications include a metro app, maps, taxi application, and Google Translate. One of our class trips in Russia was to visit the Yandex offices, and it is well worth the outing if you have the opportunity to see it.
Take note of service providers for mobile networks in Russia and activate roaming on your phone beforehand, as buying a sim card in the airport can be very expensive. You will not have a working Russian sim card upon arrival, and your phone will be invaluable to you, so it is crucial to make sure that you have access to data on the first day. For the entirety of your trip, your cellphone will be used for translation, keeping documents, and keeping in touch. It would be useful to install a tracker app on your phone and make sure a friend or roommate knows when you plan to go out. There is almost always security and help at the Metro stations but one can get lost, and in an area where you do not speak the native language this can be troublesome.
Add yourself to the WhatsApp group for the HSE exchange. There you have the opportunity to start making friends with people who will be on the exchange with you. This group will also help you in figuring out parts of the paperwork and the application process that are unclear. Some of the students in these groups are full-time students at HSE, and they are a good resource. Joining one of the expat groups on Facebook can also help you if you need to ask questions. Sometimes other foreigners have had similar issues to yours and can help you out with information. The international offices at the University handle quite a lot of admin and may not always be available to help you, so I recommend you try and build as strong a network of resources as possible of people to ask for assistance when needed.
Make sure you have informed your bank that you will be exchanging money abroad because you can have your cards canceled if the bank deems the activity on your account suspicious. When I had my semester exchange, it was not an option to exchange Rand to Ruble in South Africa beforehand, and I had to draw money at an ATM at the airport upon arrival. Most of the ATMs will have an option to switch from Russian to English so if you do not succeed with the first one just try another ATM. Remember anything you do or buy at the airport is more expensive so try to get by with the bare minimum until you are safely at your dormitory.
Pack some essentials for when you arrive on your first day. I packed a travel cup, some coffee sachets, and a snack. You might arrive at the dormitory late and tired. The first night I had a coffee and a snack and went straight to bed. I was provided with some basic bedding, a towel, and the kitchens had an urn that provides hot water. Most of what you will use on your stay you will buy in the first week such as a proper sim card, extra bedding, cutlery and kitchen essentials, cleaning products, food, etc. I found the cost of living to be surprisingly reasonable. I do however recommend that if your budget for this trip that you put some money in savings for unforeseen costs, buying of gifts and souvenirs, and travel. Most of my extra expenses there were for money spent on novelties and trying out new food and traveling to places with friends. You can get through the whole trip with the bare minimum, but it is worth spending the bit extra to travel over weekends and see new places. Another cost that I did not foresee was how much I would spend on buying household goods for my room. A lot of the students bought extra bedding as it was fairly cold at night during the start of the winter. I invested in bedding, a good pot and pan, some kitchen essentials, and a second towel as they only did linen once a week.
Experience at the Host University:
HSE offers various modules that you can pick from for your semester exchange. You are not limited to taking only courses from one year but can pick courses from both Bachelors and Masters. I advise you to research the various courses and read through their course outlines online. HSE has an online registration system that opens at a specific time on a specific date, and it is a first come first serve registration basis. Some modules only have a very limited amount of spots open for international students, and you will need to select your options in a short period of time. This makes it important to be familiar with which courses you want to take and what your second and third choices would be if those courses were to be unavailable or canceled. More than half of the courses I was interested in were either canceled or already full. You will, however, have some time to unregister courses later if you see that it is not working for you. The most important thing to consider when picking courses is that it is your responsibility to ensure that your timetable does not clash and that the travel time between University buildings takes up to an hour in some cases. I found once I was there that the classes I had the option of taking sometimes did not work out due to travel restrictions or they were canceled due to lack of interest. This can be problematic if you need a specific set of courses to transfer credits back to your home University.
The academic courses are offered in either Russian or English, but you will most likely be in a class with other Russian students if you pick the English option. Lecturers often switch back to teaching in Russian even though the class is an English option class and you should not feel shy to ask people around you to please speak English. Russian students are required to take some of their modules in English, and many of them are either shy or struggle to find the correct words. The students and teachers might revert to their home language because it is easier to explain concepts, but if you do not insist on an English explanation you can be overlooked, and you will struggle to keep up with academics. Never feel shy to engage in class. You will be given marks based not only on your attendance of classes but your ability to engage and have meaningful academic debates in class.
The things that stand out the most if you compare Stellenbosch University to HSE academic life are:
1. Travel time between classes is much longer and can take up to an hour.
2. You will walk far from the metro to get to your building where your class is held. This takes a lot of time once it starts to snow heavily.
3. Time spent in one class is longer than the average SU class and you can expect to sit there for 3 hours or more.
4. You will have lots of homework to do and hand in.
5. You can often have evening classes between 6 pm and 9 pm which means you only get home at 10 pm in some instances.
6. There is no fixed campus, and faculty buildings are spread across the city. Looking for a faculty building for the first time is an adventure.
Return to Stellenbosch:
Coming back to South Africa was very emotional for me. You form a routine and build a life over four months in Russia and saying goodbye to your friends, the dormitory staff, and your lecturers is hard. The biggest adjustments for me was the weather change, switching back to a different language, and getting used to being back home without my roommates and friends which I miss dearly. Leaving South Africa initially was not as difficult because I was excited to start this adventure and I was busy the whole time from the moment I started my paperwork until I landed in Russia up to the last two weeks after the exams. The time goes by extremely fast, and before you realize it, the exchange is over.
My perception of certain aspects of South Africa has changed greatly while I was abroad. We are more aware of sustainable living in South Africa than in Russia for example. Stellenbosch University has an excellent academic standard, and many of the other Universities see us as an incubator for great academic potential. Our level of campus support for students is also much higher, and our international offices put in a great deal of effort. As a country, we do however have a long way to go in terms of public transport, and I admire the Russian transport system which is a very efficient and safe way of traveling across the city. Living costs in Russia are very comparable to South Africa and in many instances a lot cheaper. The only expenses that were much higher than I expected were travel costs for trips and ESN organized events. These events were good opportunities to make friends but almost unaffordable with our exchange rate; thus I very rarely partook in any of the organized events. I recommend you save quite a bit of money if you want to travel across Russia with your friends as it can eat away at your savings. The European mindset with regards to what is and isn’t expensive is also very different from ours so if you do not come from a very wealthy family in SA you will have a hard time matching what other exchange students from European countries can afford to spend on going out, restaurants and trips. To some of the countries Russia is seen as a much cheaper alternative, whereas to South Africans, it is much the same as our living costs.
When I applied for this trip, I had never left the country before, and now that I have left and come back I feel that I have a greater appreciation for our own country as well as other countries and cultures. You have the opportunity to interact with a lot of people from various countries during your stay in the dormitory. South Africans have the advantage that we come from a multicultural background, and we already speak at least two languages; thus I feel like I adapted fairly quickly compared to students who only speak their native language. If you are always open, warm, friendly and willing to learn you will have an enriching experience on your exchange. Perseverance is key. I will definitely go abroad again once I can afford to travel if only to go back to Russia, or to see the friends I made on this trip. I believe that the experience has made me more willing to try new things and to have faith in my capabilities. Once I learned how to order a cup of coffee in Russian, I felt like I could achieve anything.