As part of the education practice in Singapore Management University (read more in “How I fell in love with SMU”), students get to experience studying in an overseas university under a program known as ISEP (International Student Exchange Program). SMU has partnered with various universities all over the world, mainly in US and Europe, where students get to spend a semester or sometimes a year abroad. It has been increasingly more common even among NUS and NTU students, but SMU has a huge emphasis on international experience so most of the students leverage on this opportunity to spend a semester abroad. I was lucky to be able to spend my previous semester in Erasmus University in Rotterdam. So what are the things that happened behind the scene?Pre-Departure Preparation
Choosing the destination
It was a clear choice for me to go to Erasmus University (from here on will be referred to as Erasmus U for convenience sake), but for many people, the destination itself is a huge decision to make. There are many aspects you will need to consider: travel, quality of teaching, student experience. If you are like me, someone who likes to travel and unfortunately doesn’t have a passport with a lot of visa exemptions, the best choice would be Europe. The Schengen visa allows you to travel to as many countries as you could probably get from a single visa.
Of course, different people have different preferences, some may choose to spend quality time travelling within a country and really soak themselves into a completely new culture. My friend who went to Turkey totally fell in love with the country and had been to as many places in Turkey as he could within 6 months he was there.
Documents, documents and more documents
There is an endless pile of documents that went back and forth, which started even before I was formally accepted by Erasmus U. There’s your visa application, your formal documents for the school and application for housing. What is more cumbersome is the fact that the school and visa application requires hard copy of the documents, thus you will need to prepare beforehand as postal service requires quite a bit of time and if your school doesn’t cover the postal service for documents, it will definitely cost a bomb.
Plan in advance
If you are trying to squeeze as many places as you possibly can within a short frame of your exchange, I suggest that you start early. Identify the places you want to visit and prioritize. Make sure that you check where each place is located and which route would be best. For me I started with the map of Europe, marking the countries and cities I wanted to visit. I had a really difficult time trying to narrow down the destinations, as I realized that I only had a few weekends to clear all the places I wanted to go to. I settled with going around the Benelux region (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg), giving myself a less intense experience since this was my first time solo traveling.
Next question would be mode of transport. Europe has the best rail network and personally, I feel that train is really the best way to experience Europe. As I am going to nearby countries, train rides balance price and comfort, bus rides are really too long although they are cheap and planes are too expensive and too much of a hassle. I purchased a two-month 15 rides Eurorail pass, which cost so much cheaper than it should during a year-end clearance. So it is really important to plan in advance!
During Exchange: Balancing Non-Stop Travel and Studying
Study your ass off
I really underestimated the difficulty level of the courses offered at Erasmus U Economics school, I was surprised that the courses were quite rigorous and everyone was quite hard working. But universities have varying level of difficulty, I know some of my friends chose universities which do not require them to attend classes and have relatively easy passing rate, thus they could spend more time traveling.
Personally I chose Erasmus U because I knew I would enjoy quality education, the economics school is quite renowned and the professors were really good. I genuinely felt that I learnt for the sake of learning there because I only had to pass/fail.To illustrate how hard I studied for my exam, I was literally studying until early morning while I was spending the Valentine’s weekend with my fellow SMU exchange students in Paris. I didn’t regret any single moment though.
Absorb as much as you can
One thing that I regretted was really not being able to know a lot of Dutch. I believe that only locals give you the best way to really know the countries you are visiting, as they said “When in Rome, do what Romans do”. I was lucky enough to visit Germany to finally meet an old friend. She gave the best tour of Frankfurt, took me to this amazing cake store and really did what locals would do (well, except drinking beer because I had to catch the train early in the morning the next day to go to Berlin).
The same happened when I visited my friends in Nottingham and London respectively, they really took me to eat the best food and tea places, I was overwhelmed by the culture and it was nice to see things I would not be able to see lest they didn’t show me the less popular places. Although the exchange was the third time I was in Europe, it completely changed my perception of Europe and I grew to love this continent very much.
Keep in contact with your friends
While I was on exchange, I gained a lot of foreign friends. Mainly because there was only one slot available from SMU in Erasmus U Economics school so I was “forced” to interact with the other exchange students from other countries. After months of lunch dates, day traveling and drinking sessions, I have gotten quite close to a few of them despite the cultural differences and the fact that we came from different walks of life.
Objectively having more friends from different parts of the world enrich your perspectives about different issues, that is really true for me. It started off as keeping in contact with them because of the shared memories that we had, but somehow overtime it becomes more than that. They have always provided me with fresh perspectives about life, whether it’s to relief myself the pressure for getting a job or to really go for what I really love. Despite living in different parts of the world, social media makes things a lot easier, we communicate as though we are still there in Rotterdam.
Keep whatever resolutions you have made for yourself
I promised myself that when I get back to Singapore, I would spend more time with my friends and my family whenever I can. My short stint in Rotterdam was the first time that I was so far away from home and from all of my friends back in Singapore. Homesickness really kicked in coming into the first month, when I started venturing out of Netherlands with the routine train rides during weekends. I began to miss speaking in Indonesian, tasting Asian food and having lunch dates with my friends, the time difference didn’t help too because Europe time is much slower than Singapore/Indonesia time. I began to realize that I was taking things for granted, especially my loved ones.
On top of that, having the privilege to put my GPA aside made me realize a lot of things. I rediscovered the joy of learning for the sake of satiating my curiosity, on top of that I also found my way back to doing the things I have always loved: writing, traveling and meeting new people. It was nice, for once, to forget about all the obligations that I have had to fulfil in Singapore: maintaining GPA for my ASEAN scholarship and committing my time to myriad of CCAs. So I resolved to devote one day of the week completely to myself, even back in Singapore, to do things I like- be it hanging out with my friends, reading book or watching funny Korean baby shows.
Exchange gives you room and time to think, about life in general and about your priorities. Use that time to re-discover yourselves and reflect on what you really want to do after you graduate from university. I really encourage you to seize any opportunity to go and live abroad for a while when you can.
I hope this will help you in preparing for exchange or even in deciding whether or not to go for exchange!
Photo Credits: Author’s Collection