Early preparation is key when looking to avoid a stressful time before exchange. I had some unfortunate circumstances where my passport with my visas was stolen whilst being transported back to me and had to restart everything, I was very fortunate that there was enough time afforded to me to get everything back and sorted before my departure.
Important necessities to consider:
- Visas: what type (visitors, study, work etc) of visa you will need, and which visas would will need if you plan on doing any travelling to neighboring nations.
- Flights: I would suggest booking a flight that allows for two or three days to settle into your new home before orientation and things like that begin.
- Money: planning a travel card or opening up a bank account as soon as possible is important as there are a lot of expenses at the beginning of the exchange.
- Accommodation: many universities supply websites, contacts or accommodation for students themselves. There are dates when these places open and getting on to a good spot could be key to a great exchange.
- Transport: especially if staying in a city, it is vital to get transported sorted and to account for that adaptation. Staying close to a station is quite a bonus to allow for easy commutes.
The more emotional preparation is different for everyone but after having had the experience I would say do not go in with any set expectations because there is a high chance that it will not be what you expect. Personally, I believed I would have no time to rest as soon as I got there because of how busy everything would be; this was very wrong. Arriving in a big city knowing no one and with nothing but a suitcase was a bit more daunting than I had originally thought it would be. However, within four days I had started finding my feet and made contacts that would last the entire exchange. The semester was incredible, and I would jump on a flight again in a heartbeat; this is just a reminder that there will be ups and downs like always.
A final note on preparation is to go in with some sort of idea of what you would like to achieve on this exchange. An exchange can be a time of partying, making lifelong friends, business networking, starting a future in another country or an experience of a lifetime; it can also be all of the above. The important thing to note though is that the time disappears quickly and unlike a semester at Stellenbosch where you can get to something next year, you invariably only have one shot at this spot and it is solely up to you to make the most of it.
The Exchange Experience:
The academics: The academic experience at HEC Montreal is very different to Stellenbosch and for me it was a nice change. The contributing factors were definitely the fact that Canada is a technologically advanced country, HEC is a business school as opposed to a large university (although it is on a university campus), classes were longer and more practical and, the class was made up of international students predominantly.
The technology side was thoroughly enjoyable as I took subjects that involved simulations, programming using software such as Stata and we were invited to take place in many online competitions throughout. We were also encouraged to use laptops in as many situations as possible and this is of course good practice for the future.
The fact that HEC is a business school was also great as classes were smaller and more intimate. We were a class of between 25 – 40 people and this allowed the lecturer the flexibility to have discussions and allowed students to actually take part in the lecture and contribute.
The length of classes (3 hours) meant that lectures had a practical aspect to it where we could spend time applying the work and learning in a more tacit manner. Three hours may sound like a long class, however; with a short break and being very active in the lecture it does not seem to drag at all. Being able to discuss real topic such as: ‘Why Amazon struggled to infiltrate the Chinese market’ seems to hold a lot of value when looking to be involved in the global market.
The fourth aspect that made classes different was the international aspect of HEC and Montreal as a whole. The various different perspectives and learning methods were incredible to be a part of and made the lecture experience that much more unique whilst at the same time showing me that we in South Africa are in no sense behind the train of thought compared to the more developed nations. Being able to have representatives from all over the world who are like minded but have a unique perspective was truly incredible.
Outside of the academics:
My experience of Montreal as a whole was fantastic, I loved living in a bigger city, using public transport all the time and the diversity of the city. Montreal is a rare pocket of diversity as French and English clash along with many other groups represented by location in which they reside such Little Italy and Chinatown. I would definitely suggest attempting to get out of Montreal should the opportunity arise, there are many nature reserves close by and great cities to experience such as Toronto and if you can get a US visa the likes of New York and Boston are a 10/ 10, would recommend.
In terms of living and where to stay, there are many different suburbs in Montreal that all offer something different. I stayed in the downtown area which had a great vibe and was filled with many other students from other universities meaning I met a lot of different people. A popular spot is also Le-Plateau which is a rather indie part of town with a lot of nice bars and cool restaurants. Personally, if I had to go again (which I might) I would try and stay in the Mile End or Little Italy area because of the culture and cuisine on offer.
Exchange is a growth opportunity like I have never experienced before, I have returned with new friends, capabilities and a new knowledge of myself; you have so much to look forward to!
Return to Stellenbosch:
Coming back to Stellies was not as much of a shock as I would have imagined, after all it is only 5 – 6 months that one is gone for. The one thing for sure and those who go to Europe cannot even relate… I missed the sun. The highlights of my return were definitely that I could share my exchange with all the other International Business students and of course nothing beats seeing familiar faces again. Being a Durban boy, my accent held strong throughout the North America trip and after a few hours in the sun, I was not so translucent.
The one thing I have struggled with coming back to SU is the lectures in contrast to the overwhelmingly positive experience I had at HEC. The classes are back to being 200+ and my overall experience of the layout does not compare unfortunately. This is not to say the work we are covering here in South Africa is behind in any manner, just the presentation of it which I believe lies heavily on our resources per student compared to a business school in a well-developed country.
Overall, I am so happy to be back, and I think it is fantastic that we get at least one more year in Stellies before potentially heading off elsewhere. Use everything you have learnt on the exchange and find a good balance between what you have learnt overseas and how to apply it to your life back home. I think you will find that everything has remained relatively similar (bar inflation) but your perspective on everything is very different and I am still trying to maneuver this. I believe it is important not to revert back to how we were pre-exchange but rather to ensure that this experience reshapes the way we view the world as a whole.
I am sure you have heard it on numerous occasions by now but exchange truly is an incredible opportunity with a lot of room for you to decide how you want to shape the experience. Just like any stage in life there are ups and downs and at the beginning it may be quite lonely, you are going from a town where you know practically everyone to a new city with a whole lot of new people. However, soon it will become an experience that you will look back on fondly and hopefully something that will change the trajectory of your life. All the best.