I am a South-African citizen with a German family background. Thus, I have always dreamt about traveling and living in Germany. Doing my Masters in Electronic Engineering at Stellenbosch University presented me with the perfect opportunity – allowing me to study a semester abroad at Reutlingen University, Baden-Württemberg Germany. Not only would this semester abroad satisfy my personal desire to visit Germany, but also allow me to extend my Engineering knowledge beyond what I could have imagined.
I started my semester abroad plans with an in in-depth discussion with my Master’s program supervisors, Prof. MJ Booysen and Dr. L Visagie. The discussions were mostly centered around my motivations for doing a semester abroad, what value it will add to my masters and the timing surrounding my masters project. As I was doing research in an engineering field that was still experiencing development, we decided it would be an excellent plan for me to do a research project and participate in taught classes with a supervisor with experience in this field.
As Prof. MJ Booysen is heavily connected with universities from all over the world, he quickly introduced me to a few supervisors that he thought would be able to help me in my field of study and who are partner universities of Stellenbosch University. I quickly organized skype meetings via email to discuss my possible exchange. I decided upon Prof. T Zenner from Reutlingen University as they are a “Hochshule” (University) who aim to integrate the engineering industry with university studies.
The application process at Reutlingen university was simple and intuitive, as I met all the requirements. As I have been quite self-sufficient in most of my studies and personal life, private preparation was not difficult either. I knew what to expect and what I will need to live on my own. Support from Stellenbosch University was excellent with the Stellenbosch international office offering me a great deal of support during my preparations and even offered a pre-departure advice session. As I am doing a purely research-based masters, I had no obligation to complete any specific courses. Therefore, the registration process and course selection were quite simple. No specific topic was decided upon; however, it was decided that I will have a mixture of a self-research project, master’s level engineering classes and possibly a few German language courses.
As I have dual citizenship, I required no passport or any blocked account to be set up before I went to Germany. My major concerns were medical cover, which is required by the German government for all students, and accommodation. Although I am covered aboard by my South-African medical aid, I still needed to get a German provider for the complete duration of my stay. In Germany one can chose between public and private medical aid service providers. The advantage of public medical aids is that if you are admitted no payment is required, while private funds require one to pay for the procedures and then claim back the money. I chose the private cover as private cover is significantly cheaper.
My accommodation arrangement was made quite simple, as the student coordinator from Reutlingen University, Max Alber advised me to stay in the student dormitories which are located close to campus. The rental agency who organized the student dormitories were extremely helpful and made the process quite simple as they receive several hundreds of international students every year.
Overall the rest of the preparations were quite intuitive and did not require a lot more though than any other travels. My main concerns, medical aid and accommodation were covered and just had to ensure that my flights and train tickets to the University were in order. Luckily, I could read, write, speak and understand German at an intermediate level which significantly helped me navigate to the University. I would advise any student who is interested in Germany to at least learn the basic German words such as exit, ticket, thank you etc.
Experience at Host University:
I ended up taking 4 courses along with my research project. My favorite course was definitely Control Systems and its practical’s as it improved my skills related to being an engineer. This course also equipped me with a better understanding of the German engineering scene and might prove useful in future international job applications. I would also highly recommend future exchange students to undertake some German language courses as this really aids in better social integration as well as developing a unique skill. There are different difficulty levels available, ranging from beginner to intermediate. As mentioned before, my German family background equipped me with enough knowledge of the language to take the following modules; Schreiben und Sprechen B2/CE, Deutsch Grammatik Aktiv A2/B1 as well as Deutsch Niveau B2. While these courses may seem challenging and intimidating, the lecturers ensured they remained relevant and also fun.
Upon arriving at Reutlingen University, Mr. Max Alber arranged an excellent orientation meeting, in which he guided us through the last administrative paperwork needed by the University. Further, he guided us around campus, introduced us to the TEC faculties different laboratories and explained all the different online study resources that we might need to use during the semester. I was also assigned a “study buddy” or student mentor who helped immensely with nitty gritty uncertainties, for example collecting the keys for my accommodation. She was also able to offer advice in terms of leisure time activities and cost-efficient living and travel considerations. This peer centered view of life in and around Reutlingen proved to be exceptionally valuable in ensuring I spend my time in Germany as best I can.
There are several leisure time activities such as organized sport, such as handball and soccer. However, I enjoyed jogging through the serene woods surrounding Reutlingen the very most. Tackling Georgenberg, a surrounding mountain, is an activity that should not be missed and can easily be repeated with either friends or alone. Reutlingen International Office also offered several networking opportunities with German and fellow exchange students. They also offered several occasions for exploring the Reutlingen-Stuttgart area while offering some financial relief for these trips. I was not always able to participate as I was more academically orientated, but I still managed to make several friends – both international and German.
There are several practical tips that I would recommend to other international students to ensure a good budgeting strategy, as the exchange rate might scare students from developing countries. Firstly, the accommodation provided by the GWG, recommended by the University is quite good. The accommodation is quite close to campus, with nice living areas at a student friendly price. I cannot recommend the accommodation enough, as it has made my life so much easier and convenient.
Secondly, my recommendation would be to buy the Naldo semester ticket. This allows a student freedom to use the public transport in the surrounding areas and it will easily add up and save transport costs. Moreover, it also allows you to take budget explorative trips in the surrounding area, such as Tubingen, Bad Urach and the Burg Hohenzollern castle, all which I would highly recommend. Further, I would recommend eating at the student Mensa often, as the student dining hall provides one with a nutritious and delicious meal for a reasonable price, specifically between classes when there is no time to kook.
I feel that my University experience has been significantly upgraded in terms of educational value, life experience and expectably networking. I am thankful for the new German and other international friends that I met throughout my journeys. Not just the people in my engineering class but also in social situations who became an integral part of my experience.
Living abroad also made me appreciate what a tight sense of community we have in South Africa. South-Africans are some of the friendliest people in the world, and I found myself missing home more than just once. I especially missed my friends, girlfriend and family quite a bit. Although I could speak and understand German I missed speaking my native language, Afrikaans.
Return to Stellenbosch:
Returning back to Stellenbosch was truly a unique experience. If you return you do not experience your home country as a citizen, you experience it as a foreigner as you have been so used to the way of life and systems of the exchange country. One of the biggest things that stood out to me upon return from Germany was the poor state of our public transport systems. Due to constantly late and unsafe trains a large number of South-Africans prefer to use the taxi network system. Although these taxi’s drive quite unsafe, it is understandable as the drivers need to move large amounts of people as quickly as possible. In Germany, this task would be handled by a bus with a specific bus lane. Therefore, my views changed, as I now believe we do not have a taxi problem, we have a lack of “taxi lanes” similar to the German system. This is just a small and weird way that living abroad changed my views on South-African problems.
The exchange semester honestly awoke a travel lust in me. My bucket list for places and countries I want to visit grew exponentially, as I saw what impact listening and learning from other people from different cultures has had on my experience of the world.
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustav Flaubert
For anybody who has ever doubted if they should do an exchange semester…. Just do it! Apply for bursaries, save money, work or even email the host University and ask if they might have a student job for you, it will be worth all the trouble in the end.