Leuven, Belgium. My home for 5 months. 13 434km away. What an exciting yet daunting thought!
In the time leading up to my semester abroad, a question that came to mind was “How do I fully prepare for my exchange; packing up my life here in South Africa and starting over in some foreign place for 5 months?” Looking back, I can assure you that the answer to this question is: you can’t. I don’t mean this in a negative light, but you will never really know exactly what to expect in terms of saying your goodbyes, finding your feet in an unfamiliar place, and studying at a university that operates differently to what you are used to. The most important thing to remember prior to and during your exchange is that, IT IS OKAY. If things don’t work out as you planned, don’t worry, because there is always a solution and everything will work out in the end.
The administration process prior to your exchange should not be taken lightly. It requires a lot of time, effort and organisation. It may be discouraging at times, but trust me, it will be worth it in the end. Regarding your visa application: start as early as you possibly can! Especially with the police clearance required for Belgium. At the Belgian Consulate in Cape Town they accept clearance certificates from an agency called Nevetec. I would recommend this service because it will save you a lot of waiting time and effort and will eliminate the inconvenience of using the police services. However, it is a little more expensive. Note that the Consulate in Johannesburg did not want to accept Nevetec certificates.
Another important administrative factor to keep track of is the application dates for the Priority Country Programme. I was lucky enough to receive this scholarship, and it really contributed to the enjoyability of my semester abroad. It allowed me to pay my rent, food and do some travelling. Therefore, my exchange did not cost my parents anything more than what it costed them when I was living In Stellenbosch. The application for this scholarship is quite tedious and requires a lot of effort, but it is 100% worth it.
Applications for KU Leuven’s residences are also important if you would like to live in a student residence. This process is not very complicated. If you are unsure about applying for residence, I would encourage you to do it. My best friends from the exchange were my residence mates and seeing that I lived in the international hallway of my residence, it allowed me to meet and experience people from many different countries and cultures. The rent is also much lower than private accommodation. I can recommend my residence, the American College, as it is situated well, modern on the inside yet very rich in history and architecturally ancient on the outside.
In terms of travelling, I would recommend Emirates for your flights to and from Belgium as they allow 2x 23kg suitcases, as well as a hand luggage bag and a personal item (like a backpack). I found that rolling your clothes takes less space than folding and piling them. Make sure that you have a good raincoat, umbrella and warm jacket. I knew that it would be very cold, but I did not anticipate how much it would rain (almost every day in winter), and how grey it would be. So prepare yourself for not seeing the sun for long periods of time, and consider taking Vitamin D supplements (which I did).
Experience at Host University:
My semester at KU Leuven was one of the best times of my life. Leuven is the perfect town for a student. It is small enough that you do not need to use public transport; everything is accessible by foot or bicycle. Yet it is big enough to offer everything you may need. It is very similar to Stellenbosch in terms of being a “student town.” When the Belgians go home over weekends and holidays, the town is rather quiet. But due to the large international student population, there is always still some events happening over weekends to keep you busy. I recommend that you join the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) as they offer many activities and discounts for international students. A KU Leuven Culture Card is also worth investing in, offering free entry to many cultural events around town. The social and night life in this town is also prominent if you enjoy going out. Seeing that the Stella Artois beer brewery is situated in Leuven, you will definitely get your fair share of Belgian beers in. And, it goes without saying that their fries, waffles and chocolates are not to be missed.
All of this is fantastic, but let’s not forget why you are actually going on exchange: to study. KU Leuven is a world top 50 ranked university and was established in 1425. Therefore, you should really consider yourself privileged if you get the opportunity to study there. I took 5 courses worth 6 ECTS each, namely Digital Marketing, Organisational Behaviour, Industrial Organisation, Capital Investment Policy and Development Economics. Digital Marketing and Development Economics were theory-based courses. Organisational Behaviour and Industrial Organisation involved a lot of group work and presentations, which allowed me to interact with classmates from all around the world and improve my presenting skills. Capital Investment Policy was the most difficult for me, involving some investment-based calculations and theory. Overall, the workload was manageable and the exams actually ended up being easier than I expected. I would say that the standard is quite similar to that of Stellenbosch, perhaps even a little easier. One thing that was a bit difficult to adapt to was the duration of their classes, with each class being two or three hours long.
I did better in the exams than I planned for and expected, managing to get distinctions in all my courses. At KU Leuven they do not write semester tests. You only have to do some assignments and presentations during the semester, and then write the final exams. This is nice as it allows you to travel over weekends, but if you do not work consistently throughout the semester it will put you under a lot of pressure for exams. It was also very strange for me to have to worry about exams over the Christmas holidays. I was fortunate enough to have my family come visit and travel with me for these holidays, so I did not study much during the holidays. Seeing that I still managed to perform well academically, I would say you should make the most of your “winter wonderland Christmas,” and then be prepared to study hard the moment you get back.
Throughout the semester I did a lot of travelling over weekends and on free weekdays. This was a highlight of my experience abroad, and I managed to visit 10 countries and 33 towns and cities. If you are diligent and work hard during the week to stay up to date with your academics, this is perfectly possible and if you plan well, you can easily do this on a student budget. Also make use of your International Business classmates, even if you were not close friends with them before. They can be excellent tour guides of their cities and provide you with free accommodation.
There will also be some testing and difficult times during your semester, whether it be missing home, having difficult group members etc. Remember that this is okay; it is part of the experience. Although it may not always be pleasant, it will help you grow and develop as a person and you will learn a lot about yourself in such times.
Return to Stellenbosch:
The end of my exchange and post-exchange experience was more difficult than anticipated. During exams I felt ready to go back home, but as soon as exams were over and my stress was relieved, I wanted to stay longer. I became very close with the people living in my residence, which made saying goodbye really difficult. All of us were in tears after saying goodbye, and I cried all the way to the airport. It was harder for me to say goodbye to them than what my goodbyes in South Africa were, because I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again, and they contributed largely to my incredible exchange experience.
When I got back to South Africa and saw my family waiting for me at the airport, my heart was filled with happiness. I really missed them during my time abroad and it was so good to see them again. But, a while after arriving back home everyone continued with their normal activities and I felt somewhat insignificant. To be honest, it was a bit of an anti-climax. I looked forward to going home for such a long time, and then it ended up being a bit of a let-down. Because I video-called my family often while abroad, I had already told them most of what there was to tell. But the fact remained that I had just returned after 5 months of new experiences and a different way of life, and I didn’t know how to express all of this. It was then that I came to the (obvious) realisation that life continued back here while I was away, and my absence did not influence their course of life.
I was home for a week before coming back to Stellenbosch, during which I had to make the decision of what modules I want to major in this year. Because I did not have a clear preference in any of our previous modules, I found this quite challenging. Readjusting to the heat was also a challenge, going from a maximum of 4 degrees Celsius to 34 degrees Celsius. But I could not complain about it, because it was something I longed for while I was in Belgium.
When I got back to Stellenbosch, it was time for another adjustment. After being in res for three years, I moved into an apartment. I am enjoying it, but I miss the convenience and effortless social life that comes with living in a residence. I was extremely happy to see all of my friends again, but once again I experienced difficulty in expressing my experience. Everyone asks, “How was your exchange?” and then you have to answer them in two or three sentences, which obviously isn’t enough to convey the past five months of my life.
In conclusion, I can definitely say that this exchange was life changing and an experience that I will always cherish. I am considering doing my master’s abroad, but this exchange made me realise that I really love sunny South Africa, and I would not want to live abroad permanently.