My name is Adrian van Driel. I went on exchange to North Carolina State University (NCSU), affectionately known as NC State. I learned about this opportunity at the beginning of my 3rd year of studies for my Mechanical Engineering degree. And how glad I am that I ended up going in the end! Initially this entire endeavor seemed incredibly daunting. I had never left Africa before and had never been on a plane for longer than two and a half hours. I hadn’t even been away longer than 3 weeks from home and always surrounded by friends or family. Now I was leaving my home for 4 months with what seemed like very little security and a rapidly growing number of documents that seem to spawn more like a stressful Russian doll. I can say wholeheartedly that it is entirely worth it despite all this. It is an experience that I would do again and recommend to anyone that even has the slightest desire to see some more of the world.
I would start by saying: get yourself organized. You have a lot of documentation ahead of you and you will need to practically look after yourself for 4 months straight. In reality if you plan well you will be able to find all sorts of support structures on the other side. One thing you should try to do as much as possible is get all your ducks in a row and get all that documentation done well before you need to. I speak from experience when I say that it is far better to get all that done before it is due before and test week is upon you along with 2 Strengths reports. That entire situation could have been avoided if I’d planned better. It could have been much worse if I’d left even more for then too.
What really helped was linking up with all my peers in Engineering that were going to NCSU. I had so many questions when it came to which documents were needed and what fields in those documents required what response and just tons of other questions. The study abroad office is there to help but you will get far quicker responses from a group of people wherein at least one person has likely already done what you are tackling.
Visa appointments are surprisingly not as stressful as they would first seem. Just sort out all your documentation and get there a little early. There is plenty of people there to guide you. You don’t need a visa to get a flight ticket, that trips up some people. Get your visa and flight tickets done as soon as possible, that can save a lot of stress and money.
In summary for pre-departure get as much as possible done as soon as possible. Also talk to your peers, they are going through the same thing as you and can be a valuable resource.
Experience at the Host University:
I decided on a flight with Emirates on the way there. 37 hours on planes is not fun any way you look at it but there are definitely ways to make it better. Do your homework.
I went that way without doing some homework and I suffered for it. If you have the means try and get a decent pair of noise cancelling headphones, I got the Taotronics Soundsurge 46 ANC headphones and they did wonders. If you can’t afford those or better, try to get your hands on some decent earplugs. A sleeping mask is good to have, they may dim the cabin at “night”, but that little bit of light can still make it much harder to sleep. Get a nice U-pillow so you can to hold your head up when you sleep, it is far more comfortable. If you have some headphones/earphones that you would like to use on the plane check if you will need an aux adapter otherwise your listening devices may be rendered useless. Wear comfortable clothes. Many of these tips work for a lot of other forms of travel like on a bus or train, both of which I have had the pleasure of using.
J1 visas in the US have a hidden perk that you have about a month either side of the dates indicated on the visa grace so take advantage of it. I went to the US 2 weeks before I needed to and stayed for another 3. I got to travel to 6 different states by plane, train and car so really take advantage of this opportunity and explore.
I went to NCSU for the Fall semester. Arriving at NCSU really put me at ease. I would highly recommend staying in the Global Village since there will be an amazing support structure there to help you. You will be introduced to people from all over, easily over a dozen countries represented by around 100 people. But even if you forgo this there is so much for you to do and tons of people willing to help you and it is all runs like a well-oiled machine.
I highly enjoyed the academic environment. I really feel like I could strike a good balance. There is much less class time required at NCSU, so you were expected to manage your own time. The work was easier though and the environment was in general more relaxed. Lecturers were more approachable and the divide between teaching staff and students was much smaller.
My Fridays were usually free and if I planned well, I could travel or see a bit more of Raleigh and the surrounding areas. I ended up going to New York, Cape Canaveral, Savannah, the mountains of North Carolina and Charlotte. Closer to NCSU I saw Packapalooza, Duke University, many football games, the state fair and many other things. I played cricket, went camping, fishing, hiking and canoeing. I even got to see two rocket launches which were amazing.
Return to Stellenbosch:
Returning to Stellenbosch can feel surreal. You question yourself whether this life changing experience happened since everything around just about stayed the same. The only thing that has changed is that people ask you what fast food you’ve tried and how the food was. I feel I have so much to share and process. The only people that I get to speak about it to are other study abroad students who are going through similar things. I would like to just sit down and process things with someone there to be a sounding board and facilitate that. I would recommend that you find that person for you and decompress with them. Just to properly wrap this experience up
I feel like I am much better equipped to understand people with different cultures than my fellow South African and just be more tolerant and understanding. I’ve genuinely grown so much as a person. I do think both South Africa and the US have got their problems but they both do have a lot going for them. I have friends all over the world and not only do I want to go visit them, but I want to show them my beautiful country too.
I have absolute verbal diarrhea when I get to speak about this experience, especially with other engineering students who can go on a similar experience. There are so many pros to this adventure. You learn to look after yourself in a way that you likely never had to before, learn a variety of different cultures, become much more attractive to employers, it probably won’t cost you much at all, you will still finish your degree on time and you will come away with an awesome experience, many stories and friends all over the world.
- What is paid for?
- Flights, food at university and housing if you play your cards right. Your classes as well. You will have to pay for registration fees which was $100 for me and insurance. I would recommend getting insurance on this side since insurance is extremely expensive there.
- Should I take a lot of clothes there for winter?
- Buy what you need there. I bought a nice big coat, a hoodie, some gloves and a beanie. No need to stuff your suitcase. There are a ton of sales there and thrift shops are good too.
- How easy is it picking classes?
- It can take a lot of work. The list of classes is easily available, but the trouble is trying to find classes that work and avoid clashes. Try drawing up a timetable that you can easily change to try out different scenarios.
- How much work is required on the other side?
- It is really easy actually. Academically you will have to work and sometimes hard. For the exchange however, once you are on that side it is quite easy.