The Exchange Timeline: A Comprehensive Guide to What You Will Think and Feel

Claire B., Bachelor of Journalism
University of Leeds, England (Semester 2, 2017)

I wanted to write a blog post that I thought would be helpful for future exchange students to read, but I didn’t want to write a “What I Wish I Knew”, “Highlights Of My Exchange” or “What I Have Learnt” blog, so instead I am going to tell you the cycle of emotions you will feel whilst on exchange.

 

1. “I’m sorry… what? Could you just slow down and write that all down for me because I have no idea what you just said” – when you arrive on exchange people like to bombard you with information (verbal and paper form). They usually speak like you have a mild idea of what you are doing (which you don’t) and deliver all 10 steps to settling in at once, instead of 1 at a time.

2. “Hmmm how do I make friends?” – so you arrive and you are entirely disorientated, confused and tired but you have to make friends otherwise you are going to be alone and miserable for the next 6 months… but you haven’t had to make new friends since starting year 8. It’s okay, take a breath and say hi… and if necessary acting entirely desperate usually gets sympathy invites.

3. Homesickness – for some this may happen earlier than others, its usually worse when special occasions roll around and can even come in waves but it’s important to remember that this is an amazing opportunity and once you get home again, you’ll be asking yourself “why did I want to come back to my boring life where I have no money or job?” So make the most of it!

4. “Assignments? You mean this isn’t a holiday” – it may not affect your GPA but you do still have to do work to pass… shocking right?

5. Everyone in your last week of exchange: “Bet you are looking forward to going home!” You: “I’m happy sad… happy to see everyone back home, but sad to say goodbye to those I have met” – you create a life for yourself on exchange, a mini family and support network. You achieve so much and it seems heartbreaking to leave it all behind, but you know that on the other end of the ridiculously long flight home (because you live in Australia that is basically in the middle of nowhere and near nothing) there are a group of people that love you.

 

Living in France

Sophia A., Bachelor of Law/ Behavioural Science
Catholic University of Lille, France (Semester 1, 2017)

My name is Sophia Armitage and I am a 20 year old QUT student who just finished her semester abroad! At QUT, I study a Bachelor of Law and a Bachelor of Behavioural Science; however, I used my free electives to do my exchange as it made it easier to pick classes. I went to the Catholic University of Lille (France) and I cannot recommend it enough!

Accommodation

The university was always happy to help me with any questions I had; there were even students who showed me around and to my residence (which was right across the street). The campus at the university was a bit Harry Potter like as it is an old set of buildings (mainly). The first thing I had to get used to was the million stairs around the building and the hectic security, but after I got the hang of that it wasn’t too dissimilar to QUT. My residence was very close which made my midday naps easy! But it was also right where all the student eating areas were (there are specific places where a whole meal is only 3.25 euros). I stayed at the Teilhard de Chardin and it was clean, quiet, but still lively. There are allocated study rooms in the building too, which were useful throughout the semester. The style of the classes was more similar to high school as it’s about 15 different subjects and one class each week of each. There was a lot less direction from the teachers and sometimes it was really hard to understand what I needed to do (even though all my classes were in English) but I soon realised that it was pretty simple if I just treated it like high school.

Culture Shock

As I’ve never really travelled before, this was a fairly big culture shock. Six months in a different country is pretty insane, let alone somewhere that is all terrace buildings and cute cobble stone roads. The cost of living was very low; food and drink was inexpensive as was clothing and bedding. Lille is in a perfect spot because it’s cheaper to live than Paris but it is still very easy to travel from. There are buses and trains that go to major airports and that even go to the UK. The only thing that was very strange to me was that on Sunday everything is closed. Also, that after around 2:30pm all the cafes close their kitchens. Other than that, and other than the language barrier, the culture shock wasn’t too extreme.

Some of the best parts of my exchange were just the regular parts of the day. The only other QUT student and I made a friendship group very early on and we had regular catch-ups at a local pub (La Faluche) and went to restaurants regularly. I also had a group of French friends who showed me the local hang out spots. I also really enjoyed my subjects that I was studying in the FLCH faculty (mainly humanities and literature).

Adjusting, Homesickness and Budgets

I really didn’t expect to be so homesick at the start of the exchange, even though many people told me it would happen. Luckily, I made a friend who had been through a similar thing when she did her exchange and she helped me through it. I also didn’t expect to make such fantastic lifelong friends. We made a Facebook group chat that we all still use; I now have a place to stay in all of their home countries. My main tips for doing the semester abroad is to pack lightly clothes wise because there are loads of things you’ll want to buy. Pack a towel, pillow, and a blanket of some sort for when you first get there because you’ll be tired and just want to rest. Definitely make a budget for your expenses so that when the holidays come you have enough to travel around. Another thing that I wish I had done was to set up some realistic goals for how often I would communicate with people in Australia so that I wasn’t pushing them too much and they had a realistic idea of how often I would be able to contact them. The mentality the international students have is different to how we all are usually; this impacted the relationships I had in Australia and I wish I had had the foresight to plan around that.

I would 100% recommend a semester abroad to anyone, the experience was once in a lifetime and the things I learnt are invaluable. Where there is a will there is a way; there are so many things that QUT, the government, or your host university can help you with. I only wish I had more electives so I could go again!

Rotterdam: The best city you’ve never heard of

Chris, M., Bachelor of Business
Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands  (Semester 1, 2018)

In the last few days of 2017 I embarked on what would be the experience of a lifetime. After saying goodbye with mixed emotions and spending over 24 hours travelling, I finally arrived in the city that would become my home for the next 6 months – Rotterdam. The first thing you notice when you step off a plane on the other side of the world is that the weather is the complete opposite. No matter how prepared I thought I was, coming from 35C summer days in Brisbane to a Dutch winter which hovers just above the 0C mark was a shock. Fortunately, this weather did not last the entire 6 months, and seeing the temperature gradually warm into a Dutch summer was something special.

After settling into my accommodation and making my first few friends there, I already had a foot in the door. Many amazing experiences followed over the next 6 months, but I’ll save you the trouble and just tell you about the things you need to know if you’re thinking that Rotterdam might be the exchange destination for you.

The Netherlands

There’s not many things that the Dutch don’t do better than Australia and the rest of the world. Between public transport that has made me fear my return to Queensland Rail, and a 95% English literacy rate (which is even higher than Canada) that meant most Dutch natives spoke better English than I did, they’re definitely doing something right.

I chose Rotterdam in the first place because I was looking for somewhere that had a culture different from Australia but also spoke English to the degree that I wouldn’t be forced to buy a premium Duolingo subscription. The Netherlands fit this criteria perfectly, and after assessing the possible universities available, I decided that Rotterdam would be the ideal host city. Although it is a modern city with everything you could ask for (being rebuilt after World War 2 makes it quite different to other traditional Dutch cities), it is still small enough that you could travel from one side to the other via bike in half an hour. The city has an arty hipster scene reminiscent of Berlin, but also a thriving business district and extensive shopping areas. It’s a bustling city and there is always something to do.

Even though Dutch culture has many similarities to that of Australia, Dutch people can be quite dry and serious on the surface. However, once you get to know them they’re very friendly. When around other Dutch people they will often speak Dutch, but don’t be alarmed as they quickly switch back to English to speak to those who don’t.

Being a small country, it is quite easy to hop on a train and travel to the next city over (or even next country) for a day trip. You’ll find yourself going to Amsterdam every few weeks, but although it is a nice tourist city, it can’t compare to the livability of Rotterdam. The infrastructure in Rotterdam is amazing, with buses, trams, trains, and a subway (the Metro) to help you get across the city with ease. On top of this, there are dedicated bike lanes all over the city which mean most people opt to ride instead of drive. Unlike Brisbane, there’s no need to fear for your life when riding a bike in the Netherlands! You still need to be careful as a pedestrian to look twice when crossing the street.

University

Sometimes you forget that this is the reason you’re here. Fortunately for me, the quality of Erasmus University Rotterdam matches the quality of the city. The Rotterdam School of Management (the faculty where I completed my studies) is one of the top 10 business schools in Europe.

The structure here is somewhat different to QUT. Each faculty has a different number of blocks (i.e. semesters), lasting different durations. At RSM, we had three 10-week blocks over the year. For me, that meant that my semester 1 was composed of two trimesters over here (January to March and April to June). Due to the academic year starting at a different time, these were their trimesters 2 and 3. The difference in timelines for each faculty can complicate doing units from outside of RSM, but it is still definitely possible if you research the duration and start dates of the units you’re interested in.

Each of the two trimesters I was here, I was enrolled in 3 or 4 RSM units. Each unit had only had one class a week; normally a lecture but sometimes a tutorial instead. This meant I was normally only in for two half days a week, allowing for a lot of free time. Since lectures are usually not recorded like they are at QUT, it was a good idea to go to most of my classes since I had so little contact time (provided I was in the city).

The assessment was comparable to QUT in relevance and difficulty. The exams were often MCQ, and the assignments were heavily team based with almost every unit having a team assignment involved. A grading scale from 1 to 10 is used here, with a 5.5 being a passing grade. The way it was marked meant getting a passing grade was comparable to QUT but achieving a top grade (10) was much harder.

The campus is a relatively large and even has space for on-campus accommodation. It’s 10-15 minutes outside of the city centre by either bike or public transport, meaning it is very accessible. Although there is little activity outside in the cold winter weather, everyone comes outside from the indoor study spaces and university bar to soak up the sun when summer arrives. During summer the campus comes alive, as does the rest of the city. Fun Fact: It took me 3 months before I saw a single pair of shorts being worn in the Netherlands.

An organisation called the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) organises many amazing trips and activities throughout the year. It is mainly focused towards exchange students and is a great way to meet new people and enjoy new experiences. Twice a year they host an ‘Intro Days’ program which I highly recommend. It’s three days full of fun activities and is one of the main ways you’ll meet many of your friends for the 6 months. Some of the highlights from ESN throughout the year include boat rides through the canals of Amsterdam on King’s Day (Dutch national holiday), a week-long trip to Berlin, Day trips to Belgium, and an outdoor cinema by the university lake.

Living

Unfortunately for me I missed out on a spot in the university accommodation on-campus. Although I recommend that everyone should try to get in as early as possible to get a spot on-campus, missing out is not the end of the world. The room I eventually found was on the other side of the city in an area called Schiedam. Fortunately, due to the amazing public transport and the relatively small size of the city, I was able to go door to door from accommodation to class room in 35 minutes despite the distance. When the weather was good I even found myself riding my bike to university, which also took 35-40 minutes. It may sound like the Tour de France, but the ride is relatively easy due to how flat the ground is. The public transport runs until 12:30AM on weekdays and until 1:30AM on Friday and Saturday, which means there’s never any problem getting to and from home if I’m hanging out at campus until late.

The on-campus accommodation is three individual rooms with a shared kitchen and bathroom. The average cost of rent is about 500 Euro ($850 AUD) per month, and ranges from 450-600 Euro depending on size and location. It is important to budget while on exchange. The cost of living is quite similar to Australia, but maybe a little more expensive. Some things are cheaper like alcohol (much cheaper), while others such as public transport can be quite expensive. If you eat in and cook for yourself, you can live off 150 Euro per month for food. However, eating out and enjoying yourself (as you should) quickly changes this.

One of the best parts about the Netherlands being so central in Europe is that you’re able to easily travel to different countries. Budget airlines and an amazing system of trains and busses makes it both cheap and easy to travel to any country across the continent. Booking in advanced (2 months) makes it even more affordable, but even last-minute flights aren’t too bad if they aren’t booked in peak tourist season (May-August).

Challenges

While exchange truly lives up to the high expectations of the amazing stories you hear, it does come with hardship. Although people don’t talk about it very often, going to a completely different country without knowing anyone can be daunting, and when the initial excitement wears off it can be scary. Whether it comes in the form of culture shock or homesickness, everyone experiences it to an extent. Being away from my family and girlfriend for the first time for such a long period was quite difficult, but there were many ways to help me overcome it. Keeping in contact with friends and family back home as well as having a support network in your new home country is key when integrating into a new lifestyle. You’ll find that a lot of other exchange students will be going through the same thing, so don’t be afraid to talk to them about it too. Especially if you’re experiencing culture shock, walking around your local area and seeing something new every day will help you adjust. Before you know it, you’ll be feeling at home!

Having a different time zone to back home can be quite tough but finding regular times to Skype or FaceTime friends and family can make it a little easier. Especially if you have a partner back home, sharing what you’re up to on exchange to make them feel involved and informed is important. But don’t forget that hearing about their day is equally important. If you’re lucky like I was, they might even get a chance to come over and visit you!

Don’t let any of this scare you off though; it’s a completely normal phase of the adjustment process and in the end, it’ll only make your experiences richer!

Overall

Going on exchange is a life-changing opportunity. Although I highly recommend Rotterdam as your university of choice, wherever you end up you shouldn’t be disappointed – it’s the people you meet and the friendships you make as much as the destination. On top of the incredible memories you’ll make, going on exchange also pushes you to grow as a person. Studying in an international environment and creating a global network dramatically increases your employability – it gives you far more experience than a line on your CV can justify. For those of you who are currently working through all the paper work in hopes of making it on exchange, let me tell you that its all worth it. For those who are still considering it, all I can say is to take the leap – you won’t regret it.