May 31, 2011

Exchange. If you are about to go abroad.

Quite some of my 2nd year students are about to go for an exchange semester in the next few months. The stress of passing exams and getting the necessary amount of points in order to rank to be considered for exchange has passed, and results of who is going where were announced several months ago. Now, when the exam week is slowly reaching its finish point with last exams to be written and hopefully without a need for resits at the end of June, many start preparing for their exciting trips to Australia, Singapore, Argentina, US, Germany to name a few. I have been asked several times about tips on what courses to choose, what country to go to for an exchange, what university. And having being an exchange student myself in addition to studying abroad already, I thought it would be nice to give some tips to those who are about to get a very international and perhaps one of the most exciting experiences in their lives.

I hope these tips would be useful to some. If even one person finds them useful, the goalof this blog post would be reached.

  1. Get started on the paperwork ASAP: arranging student visas, acceptance letters from the university, booking your flights, applying for accommodation. It is never too early to start. Engage the international office here, as they have experience as well as connection with the school that you are going to. This one applies to choosing the courses that you might be interested in. In some schools, only first 25 students can register for the course and as you know first come, first serve.
  2. Choose the courses that are in line with your study programme, so that you obtain the necessary study points at your home university. Of course you want to take classes that you are interested in, but bear in mind that exchange semester is also about studying and earning your credits, so that you are not behind in your study progress once you back.
  3. Get a buddy. Most universities have a buddy programmes consisting of other students who volunteer to show exchange students around. It is always best to get in touch with yours before you travel, and they might even be able to pick you up from the airport, train or bus station. That was the case for me when back in 2006, on one cold February Sunday evening I arrived to Groningen and my buddy was there to meet me, take me to the student dorm and next day showed me around and brought me to the city council to apply for a residence permit. Besides, you will then know at least one person at your new destination who is familiar with how things are around there.
  4. Join an international student network. Those people would most likely be the first friends you will make at the new place as they are in the same boat as you: do not know anything, are there to have fun and know when is the next party. Besides, as international students, like you, do not know anyone, they are more talkative and it is easier to start up a conversation with them. By no means am I saying that getting in touch with the locals is not the right thing to do, but an international student club can get you started very quickly. Plus, you can be homesick together (I doubt that would happen often, but at the beginning being overwhelmed, it might be the case).
  5. Do not think that it will be awesome from the very beginning. As things would be new and unknown once you just arrive, you might feel disappointed or that you miss the way things were back home or things you are used to. I felt that way, the evening when I arrived to Groningen, the Netherlands, and missed my beautiful German dormitory straight away. What will get you through in this case is realization that this is temporary and once you settle in, get to know some people and start classes, you will like it. And believe me, you will.
  6. Make the best out of your exchange semester. Here I am talking about sightseeing, visiting places, attending parties (assuming you are a responsible drinker) and meeting as many new people as possible. However, remember that this should not harm your study progress as exchange semester does have studying involved. In Groningen, I did attend a lot of parties and did fun things with friends. I even met my husband that very same cold rainy February evening, but it never got on the way of me passing the subjects that I had to study to have them recognized at my university in Germany.
  7. Learn and practice the local language if you have not done so already. It is always fun and also appreciated by locals if you can say at least a few things in the local language. Plus, if you like the language and you are good at it, it can always give you advantage on the job market later on. Besides, practicing the language with the native speakers is a very valuable and rare opportunity, so use it. Did I mention the benefit of understanding what people around you are talking about, especially if you are the topic of their conversation?

To sum up, make the best of the opportunity given to you by your school. Be proud that you achieved a certain level of academic excellence and were chosen to represent the Hogeschool van Amsterdam/ the University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands! Well done and enjoy! I know you will.

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