Melissa:UNIVERSITY EXCHANGE EXPERIENCE

This blog was originally posted on https://unitedkiwis.com/education-1/

Bonjour! Bienvenue!

Saturday 6 June is Higher Education Day, and to celebrate this, we are writing a three-part series on our university experiences. This Higher Education series will also feature a guest writer recounting their own individual university experience. I am kicking this off by sharing the best part of my time at university – my student exchange. This blog is in dedication to all my amazing friends whom I met at university, and the lifelong friends I made while on exchange in Montréal.

Education: Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Arts conjoint degree majoring in Marketing, International Business, and Politics and International Relations. (Also, I completed ¾ of a Geography major, however I had to drop this subject in order to go on exchange and still graduate on time).

From day one of university, I knew that I wanted to experience studying abroad. Although I was not mentally prepared to move away from home for the entirety of my studies, an exchange was something I knew I could work towards.

THOUGHTS ON THE PROCESS

There are so many things to think about when going on an exchange. You need to think about how you’re going to look after yourself, costs involved (not just monetary), grades to be eligible for the exchange, how to cope with newfound independence, and the change of pace in life. All of these aspects are why I didn’t go on exchange until my fourth year at university. To sum it all up, my university exchange was simply amazing. I always say that when I went on this program, it felt like everything in my life aligned. The moment was the perfect time of my life to go and get the most value out of the experience. I saved enough money, all my jobs were understanding and held my positions until I came back, I had done all the hard yards at university with the finish line in sight, and I was confident I was able to thrive during this next chapter.

Going on exchange was one of the scariest yet most exciting and rewarding times of my life. There were so many things I had never done before, and the unknown was frightening. It was the first time I’d been without my family for more than a month, it was also the first time I had to pay rent, fully buy my own groceries, and make friends from scratch. It was a daunting experience but it was an opportunity to really be myself.

DECIDING WHERE I WANTED TO GO

I chose the university which I wanted to attend based on three criteria:

  1. Somewhere I had never been to before.
  2. Not the USA or the UK due to the political climate at the time.
  3. A university with good departments for subjects I wanted to take.

This landed me at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. Prior to applying, I had honestly never heard of Montréal. I had to pull out a map and find out where it was. I had no idea it was a French-speaking city, and I didn’t realise it was so competitive at my home university to get into. McGill was my top choice and I’m so glad that something inside me chose this place. Montréal is a city which I enjoyed immensely. It gave me more of a university experience than I felt New Zealand ever could, and I made lifelong friends whilst there.

ACCOMMODATION

Finding accommodation was quite stressful. I knew I wanted to live in an apartment rather than at the university accommodation because I wanted more privacy and my own space. Although this was extremely difficult to find before arriving on the other side of the world, and for my specific dates. However, after a lot of perseverance, I managed to get in contact with a flexible short term rental agency through Airbnb. Let’s say, they weren’t the best landlords but everything worked out in the end (especially since it was just short term anyway). I actually ended up living outside of the McGill “ghetto”/bubble, specifically in a Francophone suburb where no one speaks English. I’m so grateful for this because it allowed me to learn a lot more French (unintentionally) than some of the other exchange students I met even though it was difficult at the start.

Where I lived also inspired me to explore greater Montréal rather than just the inner city where the university is. Montréal has excellent public transport in comparison to New Zealand and is definitely much more affordable. I was also lucky enough to have found a flatmate prior to going who was also from my university in New Zealand. He turned out to be a good friend and ally while in Montréal. In spite of the fact we didn’t hang out that much, I always knew that I had someone to talk to if I really needed to.

FRIENDSHIPS

I experienced strong homesickness within the first month in Montréal. I desperately wanted to go home for the weekend but that wasn’t feasible when it took about 24 hours one-way on a plane just to get back to New Zealand (not to mention expensive, non-direct flights). I’ll be the first to admit that I found it hard to make friends in the beginning. This is partly due to missing most of the orientation week events because my mother was also visiting Montréal for the first time at this point, and I didn’t want to leave her alone for too long.

As I became more confident with who I was and spending time with myself, everything just fell into place. I was fortunate enough to meet several Montréal natives on orientation day. A few of the people I met ended up being in some of my classes, and they happily included me in their social and study groups. Meeting a local friend is great because they shared their extensive knowledge with me and were a friendly face around campus!

Furthermore, I met lifelong friends from all around the world throughout my time at McGill. Many of whom I still talk to very regularly and whom I’ve visited on my extensive travels, or who have even visited me way down, down under. I met up with these friends almost every day while I was in Montréal and we explored from Anjou to Old Port, Verdun to Mirabel, and beyond. Whether it was daily trips to Tim Hortons (chain cafe), or staying until McLennan (the main library) closed, they are memories I will never forget.

These invaluable memories are the reason why I would one thousand percent encourage anyone who has the chance to step out of their comfort zone, to just take their leap of faith and start ticking things off their bucket list! Whether it be an exchange, a masters program, or an around the world trip. Life is to make memories, not regret the ones you never made.

As most people do while on exchange, I travelled to several cities nearby including New York City (I’m obsessed), New Jersey, Boston, Burlington (home of Ben and Jerry’s), Ottawa (Canada’s capital), Toronto and Québec City (home of the world’s most photographed hotel lobby). I also took a few day trips for walks on Mont Tremblant and Mont Sutton. North America is great because there are so many nearby cities very different from each other, all ready to explore!

MY TAKEAWAY

I found it so important when going on exchange to learn to balance university and life. I spent more time than I ever have at the library studying for classes which were pass-fail (only available to exchange students). But I also arguably went out and explored a lot more than I do while in New Zealand. I learnt so much academically and in life during this chapter, and yet it seemed so scary to begin with. Like they say, sometimes the scariest things in life are the best. Going on exchange was undoubtedly the highlight of my university experience and probably the highlight of my life thus far.

I will admit, my thoughts in this post are a bit messy as I could go on and on about this chapter of my life. But at the end of the day, I just wanted to share to those who know me, how appreciative I am about this experience that I partook in and to encourage others to challenge themselves every day because somehow life always works out eventually. I will never forget the memories I made and the people I met.

-Melissa (Guest Blogger)

Kathy: Expect the Unexpected

Reflection:

Life lesson: things don’t always go to plan. By now I thought I would be telling you all about how I made it through my first set of partial exams, the epic spring break adventures I got to experience with my new friends and how I met the Mexican man of my dreams (seriously). I didn’t ever expect to be withdrawing from my exchange 3 months early, and I certainly wouldn’t have imagined I’d be writing this post from my childhood bedroom back in NZ where the entire country is currently in a lockdown; the world facing a pandemic it was not prepared for. But that is in fact exactly how things played out, and though it’s been tough, I know that overcoming challenges such as these is a part of life.

Yes, I’m sad, but I’m also incredibly grateful for the time that I was able to spend overseas. I’m grateful that my family and I are safe and comfortable, and that Covid-19 has not affected my life in such a drastic way as many others who have lost their jobs or loved ones. Even so, now that I have had the opportunity to slow down and reflect on everything that has happened, the truth is that the past few weeks have been really hard for me. Having all your plans get completely changed in such a short space of time is obviously a shock to the system, and I think I have just needed some time to fully comprehend and accept my current situation.

View of Mexico City while transiting on the way back to NZ.

Final Weekend in Mexico:

I remember when the World Health Organisation first declared that they were considering the Coronavirus to be a pandemic, which was just a few days before my friend and I had planned to fly down to Jalisco for a long-weekend trip. It never really crossed our minds that this was something we should even consider cancelling, and I think I actually laughed and said something along the lines of “don’t be ridiculous” when questioned if I was thinking of going back to New Zealand early. It was that very weekend I booked my flights home…

The University of Auckland sent out an email saying that all students and staff currently overseas should return as soon as possible, though exchange students ultimately had the choice whether to stay or not. I desperately did not want to leave, but after lots of calls home and talking to my family, I realised that there was just no way to predict how the situation was going to develop in Mexico. My travel insurance had an exclusion for any claims caused by a pandemic disease (I was aware of this, but at the time I thought what are the chances, right???), so at the end of the day, I made the heart-breaking decision that it was safest to try and get home while there were still flights available.

The rest of the trip consisted of a fair bit of crying along with many unforgettable experiences, such as watching the Danza de los Voladores – the Voladores or “flyers” lower themselves from a very tall pole by swinging from rope tied to their ankles – or driving around the small town of Tequila in a tequila-bottle-shaped-bus. I feel so fortunate to have had such a great last weekend in Mexico, and it has made me realise how much more of the country I would still love to explore! I know for sure that I will return one day soon.

Danza de los Voladores.

What I’m Doing Now:

Tec de Monterrey had just switched to online classes when I left but had not yet decided if these would extend right to the end of the semester, or if online examinations would be an option. They have now confirmed this, and I know quite a few exchange students have decided to complete the Tec semester from their home countries, but at the time I couldn’t be sure if it would work out. I was also offered the choice to enroll back at UoA, but this would have meant catching up several weeks of work while in self-isolation and honestly, I just did not think I would be able to cope with the stress of it all. I therefore decided to take the semester off completely. Even though this is going to extend my degree and has left me in a bit of a limbo at the moment, I don’t regret it at all because it’s given me the time I needed to work things through.

I’m currently still figuring out if it’s going to be possible to go back to uni next semester (engineering degrees are very structured and courses tend to build on prior content), but I’ve got my fingers crossed and even if I can’t, I know I’ll still manage to work it all out. I’ve come to the realisation that missing a year is not the end of the world in the grand scheme of things. This whole situation has been a great opportunity for me to weigh up what is most important to me in life, and for that I am truly grateful.

I just want to say thank you so much again to the 360 International team for being so supportive, and I hope that this reflection might be useful to anyone going through a similar experience.

To finish, enjoy these photos of some yummy Mexican food because let’s be honest that was always going to be the best part 😉.

Hasta luego everyone, thanks for following along xx

Cecilia: Why I Withdrew and Other Stories…

What an absolute whirlwind of an exchange! A lot has changed since my last post. Following the devastation of Covid-19 on the world, I made the extremely difficult decision to head home and actually withdraw from my exchange. This blog post will be very personal reflection to give you a glimpse of what went down in the last few weeks for me. This post is intended to be brutally honest and hopefully provide support if you are ever in a similar situation or are needing to withdraw from exchange for whatever reason. I will also include a few “what I wish I knew before going on exchange” tips at the end!

THE DECISION TO WITHDRAW

I had finished almost all my coursework in Scotland when the University of Auckland notified me that there was the option to withdraw and enrol in papers back home. The semester was well into week 3, but due to the circumstances, returning exchange students would be offered the chance to enrol even though the deadlines had passed. This meant that all my time and credits spent overseas would not be transferred back. I would resume semester 1 2020 in Auckland, as if I had never left.

I had to make this decision without guidance on whether exams would be moved, or whether there would be flights home to New Zealand at the end of my exchange.

I decided to withdraw because I was quite worried that there was a possibility that once lockdown period ended, I might need to come back to Europe to sit final exams. I had also taken an honours paper for history and was quite worried that moving the exams online would be a severe disadvantage for me as many of the resources I need were physical books in the Glasgow library. I was also far more familiar with the coursework and examination styles of UoA compared to Glasgow.

From a personal perspective, I came home because I would no longer be able to travel Europe during my mid-semester break as I had planned. A major element of my decision making for going on exchange was being able to travel through Europe in their summertime with my friends. With flights being cancelled everywhere and borders closing all through the continent, this dream seemed further and further away. It didn’t really make sense for me to be paying rent up until summer time without a reason to be staying until the summer anyway.

Another major factor in my return to New Zealand was the international impact of the virus upon available flights. I actually booked a flight to leave from London on the 28th March 2020, but following New Zealand’s closure of borders to non-nationals, I paid for a new flight that left directly from Glasgow almost a week earlier than my planned departure date.

My biggest recommendation during such times of uncertainty is not to delay. I was extremely lucky to even get a flight home – I know of a few friends on my original flight that ended up being cancelled, and they were unable to find another one home in time. I did pay a lot more to book an earlier flight, but the amount of time and worry saved was priceless. I remember waking up every day fearing that my flight would be cancelled, and I would be stranded in the UK. I think when it comes to emergencies like this, having peace of mind was more important than a few hundred dollars.

Finally, loneliness was also important to consider as all my flatmates had to go home too. American borders had shut to non-nationals, and several of my fellow American exchange students were told that they had to come home immediately, or credit would not be transferred. I think this was partly because they had come on their university’s insurance policy so if they had caught Covid-19, their home university would be liable for costs. I knew I did not want to be stuck in an empty flat by myself for the next three to four months when there was such widespread panic and fear.

THE JOURNEY HOME

I booked almost the next fight home from the day that I withdrew from Glasgow and re-enrolled in Auckland. My flight was scheduled to leave from Glasgow and stopover in both Dubai as well as Bali. My biggest worry at this point was that one of those borders would close during the stopover, leaving me stranded halfway as I would no longer be allowed back into the UK.

It is important here to emphasise the need to stay flexible and aware. Although I was extremely sleep deprived and overly nervous upon my stop overs, the airports during Covid-19 was a complete mess. I literally made it through security for my transit with an extra 5 minutes to spare – the flights were leaving on such tight timing that there was no room for mistakes. Make sure you are speedy through transits and do not spend that much time shopping if you are not sure where your gate is. Dubai airport was pretty enormous, and I ended up having to run from one end to the other. I’d recommend maybe downloading a map ahead of time if your transit is less than an hour – with the added number of passengers and stricter security screenings, I ended up needing every extra minute.

Several people on my original flight from the UK to Dubai faced sudden visa issues half way, owing to a change in flight plans as countries closed their borders. I was very lucky to be travelling on a New Zealand passport as we have visa waivers with a large number of countries. Please do remember to triple check that your stop overs do not require a transit visa!

THINGS I WISH I HAD KNOWN:

  1. Withdrawing from exchange is NOT a waste of time or money!

Originally, I was quite upset to be withdrawing because I felt that the exchange was a waste of effort. I didn’t manage to get any Glasgow merchandise because the visitor shops had shut, and I didn’t get any acknowledgement of my time spent here on my academic transcript or anything. I really didn’t have anything to show apart from the experience and a lighter wallet.

But the amount of life skills that I learnt during this time was absolutely priceless. I had such a unique exchange and faced situations that I probably will never see again. I originally wanted to go to the UK during Brexit because I wanted to witness history in the making – I guess I got that wish!

I had to make decisions during a time of uncertainty based purely on my own judgement. I learnt to trust my gut feeling and that it was always better to be safe than sorry. I formed friendships that will continue long after the exchange is over and experienced life to the absolute fullest (we went to Ireland for St. Patricks day literally in the middle of their lockdown. All the pubs were shut, the parade was cancelled, AND our hostel dorm had one fellow in the back bunk coughing his brains out at 4am. It was a miracle we didn’t catch coronavirus to be honest!). I wouldn’t have learnt any of this from a lecture or textbook!

2. Double or triple check your insurance!

I never even knew such a clause would exist, but many travel insurance policies include an ‘epidemic or pandemic exclusion’ where disruptions caused by an epidemic or pandemic would not be covered under their policy. I had taken out the more comprehensive option and was pretty annoyed to find that I was still excluded under this clause. I know that situations like Covid-19 happen very rarely and that pandemics are not expected to happen for every exchange, but many of my friends were relying on their insurance to pay for flights if theirs was cancelled. Unfortunately, some of them had to learn about the exclusion clause the hard way.

One friend in particular was very disappointed as she had booked three individually connecting flights throughout Europe to return to the US. The first one was delayed which caused her to miss the next few, and due to the insurance clause, she was not covered at all. Later she told me that if she had known it was not covered, she would not have chosen those flights.

Therefore, be aware that even if it all turns to custard, insurance may not always work through the way that you want it to. Always make sure you have excess funds in case of emergencies like these, and do not assume that insurance covers all everything. Being flexible is SO important!

3. Pack light and always assume you will buy more things than you expect

I showed up with one 30kg bag and left with almost double the amount of clothing that I came with. I do recognise that Scotland was freezing and so half of my new wardrobe was warmer clothing, but shopping in Europe was so much fun! There is much more variety, especially towards the semi-formal and formal side of the spectrum. Plus, it is always raining so hiding in the department stores became a social event. I could go on and on about their specialty discount bargain stores (think Rebel Sports but for high end brands like Dior and Gucci), and because of we were in Europe the quality of goods was also much higher for things like Italian leather.

4. Bring wet weather boots

Waterproof shoes are so important. Enough said.

5. You are not alone!

It feels so isolated and scary being half way across the world away from home during such scary times, but I learnt a lot about people and their willingness to help.


A massive shout out to both the 360 International team here in Auckland, as well as the international exchange team in Glasgow. They gave me unbiased advice and their full support for every step of the journey.

If you are ever feeling lonely or confused or start freaking out like I did when I first realised that Coronavirus was actually really serious, know that there are people out there who are willing to help! I was running around like a headless chicken and emailed the exchange teams like 5 times each and was given such reassuring and professional responses that I never once felt like I was left on my own in high water.

I really appreciated the other exchange students checking in on me, and in return I know I went to check up on a few of them too. We are all in this together so look after one another.

6. HAVE FUN AND BE SAFE!

I look like a proud mother hen!

This is my last post, and I hope that you have enjoyed this wild ride with me! If you are considering going on exchange I wish you the very best experience. I had the time of my life in the 3 short months that I was in Glasgow and I cannot recommend it enough.

Take care all – sending love from my bubble to yours,

Kia Kaha New Zealand!

Iven: The Final Chapter

Hii everyoneeeee  ₍˄⌓⃘ ˳̫̬ ⌓⃘˄₎ค˒ ~~

Wowwww…. What a crazy few months it has been since my last blog post in February. First of all, I hope you all are keeping safe and coping well during this unprecedented global pandemic. I really wanted to take this time to reflect on these past few months and more importantly, discuss how I personally have been dealing with everything going on at the moment and offer some advice I have for everyone especially my fellow exchange students and UoA peers. Today is the first day where I have been able to sit down and actually process everything that is going on as I submitted my final assignment for the semester. It is going to be a lengthy one so I hope you’re ready, grab a drink or a snack and lets go!

Picking Up Where I Left Off…

Me and my exchange friends on our last day in Bali

The last time I caught up with you all I was in Bali and I truly did have the time of my life. Travelling during exchange with the life-long friends you have made in such a short amount of time is an indescribable feeling that you really have to experience. There will be highs and some lows, but the memories created will make everything worthwhile. Especially now, I would give anything to be back in Bali or just simply being able to travel with my friends— time is precious!

Check out my Bali Vlog on my channel! (◕ε◕✿)・:*:・。

Online Courses During Exchange

At this point of my exchange around early March, classes with 50 or more students started to become online so two of my lecturers became online with one being pre-recorded and the other being a Zoom session every week. Therefore, I still had to go to one lecture and all my tutorials. Personally, as an exchange student, I preferred this method of teaching as my courses were practical based so it was only the tutorials that were more important to physically attend.

Tip: Although classes are online, create a routine/timetable to follow so that you are still productive!

Also during this time, NUS started implementing some rules, for example, we were required to take our temperature twice daily with our thermometers ( that we were given for free at the start of the semester ironically) and take photos of it to upload online. The lecturers also had to take pictures of the class and check if students took their temperatures.

Covid-19 During March

As March progressed, the rules got stricter and soon all classes and tutorials were online. Social distancing rules started to be put into place so it would be common to see places marked with X and chairs removed so that the people would be keeping a safe distance from one another.

An example of a sign at a Mall in Singapore

Securing Another Internship

With all the craziness going on at this time, something amazing came out of it. Although I was still in Singapore, I was able to secure a social promo role for Umusic NZ! I was so so so happy as it was right up my alley, especially for my degree. The best thing was that I was able to create content while on exchange without having to physically be in New Zealand.

Tip: Never stop furthering your career even while on exchange! Always look for awesome opportunities

One Last Trip to Malaysia

I didn’t know it then but my one-day trip to Malaysia with a few of my exchange friends would be our last trip together 😢 We spent the day shopping, eating, living in the moment and simply enjoying each other’s company. Looking back now is very very bittersweet, it was the first and last trip with most of my exchange friends and I couldn’t be more content.

The Start of The End

My favorite people from all over the world <333

Mid-March towards the end of April would probably be one of the hardest and most emotionally draining times on my exchange and probably my life. Think of it like this, you live with a group of people, you see each other every day and get to know one another— you do everything together from having dinner to sightseeing to celebrating each other’s birthdays and then all of a sudden…. you have to say goodbye with no warning. That was the reality for me, all my Australian flatmates and most of my exchange friends were forced to go back to their home countries by their universities. For me, I was so thankful to be able to have the choice to stay or go back, it was a no brainer for me, I absolutely did not want to end my exchange early. This time was not only stressful but really really really heartbreaking. It really hit me like a brick wall having to say goodbye everyone, we all thought we would be together till the end, have more time with one another but that was not the case. For everyone reading this right now, cherish the time you have with your friends, loved ones and don’t take that time for granted especially during this unprecedented time.

Life in Singapore’s Lockdown aka ‘Circuit-Breaker’

Around April 7th, the Singaporean Government implemented a ‘Circuit- Breaker’, for a couple of days life was still the same then everything got way more strict and then it hit me, we’re basically in lock down now. Singapore’s handling of the situation at the start of this pandemic was definitely amazing but during this time the situation got progressively worse rapidly. If I had known that this ‘Circuit-Breaker’ meant lock down I would have definitely made the most of my last true freedom in Singapore — major regrets. During this time I basically stayed at home doing my final assignments as I didn’t have any exams. Whenever we go out to get food, do laundry or get some fresh air it’s compulsory to wear a face mask otherwise we would get fined. I also would Zoom with my exchange friends and video call with my friends and family back home to keep some sense of socialization and not loose my sanity!

Me at my current home: UTown Residence at NUS

New YouTube Video!

Checkout my newest YouTube video for a NUS dorm room tour, especially for those of you who are planning to go to The National University of Singapore for an exchange in the future after this pandemic. Also towards the end of the video, I talk more about how this current situation has affected me and my exchange. I’d really really appreciate it if you watch and leave a like/comment <333

Thank you ALL!

For now, I’m done with my exchange yet I’m still here in Singapore still trying to sort out how I will get back home. Right now, everything is uncertain but all I can say for now is that this has been a crazy first half of 2020 and I am so so so glad that I chose to come on exchange, as cliché as it sounds, this was such a life-changing experience that I will forever cherish. If you’re reading this and contemplating whether exchange is for you (after this global pandemic), the answer is simple — YES! To the 360 International Team, thank you for this amazing opportunity and thank you for being an awesome bunch of people throughout this whole process. To whoever has been keeping up with my blog posts, thank you for taking the time out of your day to read my blog and I hope you learned something valuable. Feel free to connect with me and follow me on my social medias @IvenThePanda (Click the circle icons below), seeyaaa! (✿◠‿◠)

Iven aka IvenThePanda Signing Out…..

Angela: Thank you Utrecht!See you:)

Sadly this is my second and the last blog 😢

Honestly everything is still like a dream for me. I’ve never imagined this is how I ended my exchange journey. At the beginning of coronavirus outbreak, I didn’t see leaving the Netherlands as an option. I didn’t realise how serious the situation was and how fast it spreads. Then friends around me started being called back to their home country. I then reconsidered the option of dropping out from the exchange programme. 

The view on the day of leaving Utrecht 🙂

Everything was changing so fast before I left. I (or most of the exchange students) wasn’t sure whether I would stay or go.  I’ve only got 2 days from the day I booked my ticket and the day I left the Netherlands. On the night that I booked my flight ticket, I was at my friend’s farewell party. Ironically, I turned out to be leaving before she did. Although my exchange wasn’t quite the same as I pictured it (5 weeks instead of 5 months haha) and I had only gone travelling once, this is still one of the most precious experiences I have had. 

People 

People is definitely what made me so reluctant to leave Utrecht. I’ve made a bunch of life-time friends who never gave me chances to feel lonely or isolated in a place I had never been to. I chose to stay in a 12-people flat. At first, flatmates were my most worrying part. HOWEVER, this is the BEST decision ever. I love all of my flatmates. This is by far the most homey flat I’ve ever lived in.

Cheers to all my flatmates ❤️ @weekly family dinner
Amazing people I met in Utrecht
My flatmates woke up around 6ish to say goodbye 😭

Dutch people are also very friendly. There were a time I was struggling with Dutch in the supermarket. I reached out for help. The lady was walking around showing me which one is which and gave me a little Dutch session 😉

Culture 

The advantage of being an exchange student is to be surrounded with people from very different backgrounds.  I’ve got so many opportunities to view things from different perspectives, know new things and explore. I got to know how to say basic phrases in Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Cantonese and so on. I went to the Netherlands. However, the environment gave me the opportunity to learn the customs of many other countries. 

University Life

Utrecht University has a couple of campuses. My courses were mainly at Science park which is the biggest campus located 15 minutes bike away from city centre. The campus is huge, beautiful and very W-I-N-D-Y.

Utrecht University is definitely worthy of the reputation. The lecture time didn’t seem much compare to UoA. However, it was never easy to pass courses. I found that the Dutch classroom was so active. Everyone was very willing to express their thoughts! Both students and lecturers were open to different perspectives.

I’m missing my life in Holland so much. Utrecht was such a beautiful city. It’s so young and attractive. I miss biking around the alleys and stopping by a random canal. Till next time!

Fiona: Apply, complete, repeat

Hello y’all cool cats and kittens!

I hope you’re all ready for another intense blog post by yours truly! The topic today is quarantined, critical reflection on my time at Cal… and whether I would do it again. (Long post incoming)

Sunsets from Berkeley Hill

First things first, Berkeley closed and switched to online courses 1.5 months ago, as one of the first universities in the US to do so. At the time my boyfriend and I decided we would stay put for the moment and use the additional time to explore Cal (like we initially intended to). However, when Jacinda announced that there will be no more flights coming into New Zealand we bought our tickets for a flight 2 days away. We chucked everything we owned into our suitcases whilst I was still taking tests and virtually attending lectures and trying to not let sadness/confusion/denial (?) get the better of me. Now I’ve been home for a few weeks and stuck inside, still completing the Cal semester online which has given me an opportunity to thoroughly reflect on my (cut-short) experience. I’ve obviously been keeping track of what the other 360 ambassadors have been up to and compared it to my own experiences and noticed that some of the other experiences are more travel-focused whilst mine are very academically-focused and a bit less.. colourful, I would say. I have definitely made friends and had a good time and expected having to work hard but I think I underestimated how time consuming the academic side would be as the standard at Cal is exponentially higher than at UoA, at least this is the case for Biological Sciences. I spent a lot of time playing catchup with concepts I didn’t know/understand and at the same time had to adjust to a new University environment, complete assignments and attend lectures. I had no time to travel to the places I intended on travelling to and trips into SF city were a rarity, even going out with friends was non-existent unless we decided to study together in our study group. The only thing my boyfriend and I had coming up was the Spring Break trip to Cancún which we missed as we left the United States one week before our planned Cancún travel date.

I guess it was… worth a try?

Reflecting on my expectations and comparing it to reality I have to admit that I probably should have been a little more realistic with how much time I would get to spend outside of Uni. Berkeley is a world renowned University with an acceptance rate of 8% for a reason and I think this is something I should have considered when setting my expectations for my free-time. If you have been following my posts you will know that I decided to go on an exchange for academic reasons and not necessarily to explore the country. It honestly would have been nice to see a little more of the country, however I am obviously so grateful to have been taught by such a distinguished academic body. Just to name a couple (humble brag much); my bacterial pathogenesis lecturer is Dan Portnoy, the leading expert in Listeria monocytogenes,who contributed significantly to the development of microbial cancer treatments, or my neuroscience lecturer Diana Bautista, who advanced the field of pain receptors and developed a particular type of GM mice that helped other scientists advance this field, too; both of whom could really have not been nicer or more down-to-earth people. However, the pressure I unintentionally put on myself really caused me to feel stressed out for most of my time at Berkeley (you might have figure out by now that I’m a serious nerd) and I was unable to enjoy and explore what was around me. Classes changing to online courses with compulsory lecture recordings and 24 hours to complete tests helped me get on the same level as everyone else and I finally feel like I am on top of everything (literally 2 weeks before the end of the semester, sigh).

Nerding out whilst making our way up to the Space Sciences Laboratory (this is by the Lawrence Hall of Science).

I think I really just want to give a well-meant word of advice here: depending on your objective for your exchange, choose wisely and do a lot of research. If someone had told me that I would be unable to spend any time outside of uni to explore California, I would have thought twice about going to UC Berkeley – however, when considering my (hopefully) academic career and my inspiration to become a scientist, going to UC Berkeley has really helped manifest my aspirations for the future. I feel that, whilst I didn’t quite get the “typical” overseas-uni experience, I will still be able to travel at a later date and explore California and, at the same time, I was able to meet and be taught by the most incredible, inspiring academics that helped us shape modern science. I really couldn’t fault the opportunity I was given and will treasure it, knowing that I likely wouldn’t have been able to find the biological niche I want to focus on in my career if I hadn’t gone to UC Berkeley. I got to make connections I would have never dreamt of making and I am able to hold on to, and treasure, friendships that will hopefully last beyond the end of my semester (I have zoom hangouts with my pals a lot!).

I may have accidentally gotten addicted to IKEA and Amazon Prime in the US.

Another few pointers on how to specifically approach going to UC Berkeley:
– make sure you enrol in a mix of classes that balance “doing new things” with “doing fun things” so you don’t get exhausted and still get to enjoy the international expertise Cal can offer
– expect to spend a lot more money than the requirement for the visa states as Berkeley is really expensive and it’s difficult to cut costs on anything (especially because you can’t just go and get a part-time job)
– be ready to adjust to a different learning environment – Berkeley’s high expectation and a lack of student support (such as lecture recordings) can make it difficult to follow lecture content
– Berkeley is not the university to go to if you want to see the country and “have a good time” (whatever you read into this is up to you), you will not have a lot of free time unless you are willing to sacrifice your passing grades
– whilst it is voluntary, definitely attend Golden Bear Orientation, it will help you getting to know people that you can approach with the most random questions and the Orientation Leaders make sure you are eased into the Bear vibes of the school.

After I left my friends and I realised that we never took pictures together so please accept this very serious picture of my lab partner Angela as evidence that I didn’t actually make up my friends (and yes, no lab coats are required at Berkeley unless handling dangerous substances).

Cal will always have a special place in my heart, and to get back to original question of whether I would do it again: I am seriously contemplating applying for Grad school despite (or maybe because of) the academic pressure. Cal has pushed me to work hard every day and has helped me lay the foundation to my academic aspirations. Whether you decide to come to Cal or go somewhere else, I hope that, just like me, you will find what you are looking for on your big overseas university adventure.

So long,

Laila: MISS YOU ALREADY MEXICO!!! HASTA LUEGO ♡

Boy oh boy a lot has happened since my last blog post. I never would’ve guessed that events would pan out this way, but they did and unfortunately COVID-19 meant my exchange had to end 3 months earlier than planned. As sad as I am that it all came to such an abrupt end, I am so thankful I got to have this experience and I wanted to share with you some aspects of my exchange that made it so memorable and exciting.

But once again, before we begin let’s set the mood…

absolute banger, if you want to imagine how Mexico sounds in a song.. this is it

UNIVERSITY LIFE

Being an exchange student at Tecnológico de Monterrey was an eye-opening experience. In New Zealand, and particularly at UOA, there seems to be a sort of anonymity among students. Each lecture hall is filled to the brim with students, majority of which you will probably never speak to. My experience in Mexico was very different as classes were small and therefore the relationships I formed with other students and the professor was a lot more personal and informal in a sense, something I came to really appreciate.

Each of my courses were great for different reasons. My Political Science courses were very interesting and informative, I quickly learnt that Mexican students were very outspoken and enjoyed debating and discussing many topics during class, no matter how controversial. Spanish was a lot of fun because the whole class was comprised of exchange students and we spent the entire 6 hours of classes per week only speaking Spanish, which definitely allowed me to improve my abilities a lot. We also sang a lot of Shakira (like a lot). My favourite course, however, was Photography – I had never taken professional or academic courses before, so this was a really a new experience for me. The cherry on top was that my host university lent me a professional camera for the duration of my exchange, meaning I was able to capture a lot of moments on a device better than my dying phone lol.

Now I am back home in NZ, but I have decided to continue on with my Mexican courses online with the grace of our saviour Zoom. I am grateful that whilst I am on the opposite side of the world, I can still virtually connect back to Mexico almost every day and still see my friends, classmates and professors.

TRAVEL

There is something so special about traveling with new friends in a new country. I was fortunate enough to get a decent amount of travelling in before my trip ended, so I want to share with you the highlights from my top three personal favourite destinations: Veracruz, Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta.

I went to Veracruz with six friends for the Carnaval, which is a celebration in Western Christianity occurring just before lent. Basically, it’s a massive parade filled with dancing, music and all around #good vibez. My friends and I stayed in a massive Airbnb right next to the sea and spent our days playing pool, hanging out and partying. My favourite day was spent exploring around the city center, attending  the Carnaval parade in the evening and then meeting up with another group of exchange students. That night we stayed up until 7am just talking and having a good time. I will forever remember that day!

Guadalajara: known for its tequila plants and production, I went to Guadalajara with three other friends and we went there on a mission. We splurged a little on a flashy Jose Cuervo tour and honestly had the best time. The tour involved traditional Mexican meals (such as Torta de Ahogada, typical of the Jalisco region), demonstrations of how the agave plant is prepared for tequila production, traditional Mexican dances, a train ride during the sunset and constant open bar with our own personal bartender! Needless to say, it was a day well spent. The rest of our days in Guadalajara were spent exploring the city, trying new food and enjoying the sun – I also rode a carriage and took a tour around the historical center!!! Horses are great.

Puerto Vallarta: being away for a solid 2 months gave me a newfound appreciation for how accessible the beach is to us here in NZ. Mexico City, being right in the middle of Mexico, does not have access to clean, swimmable waters. That’s why the minute we landed in Puerto Vallarta, a beautiful coastal city surrounded by beaches, I instantly fell in love. It was possibly the most picturesque place I’ve ever been; everyone was happy, and the sun was constantly out. I spent the entirety of my three-day stay swimming, tanning, eating and exploring. Puerto Vallarta is a place I’d recommend to anyone who visits Mexico.

As I said, it’s such a shame that my trip was cut short. I felt like there was still so much to see and do. However, I am so beyond grateful for being able to have this opportunity in the first place. Those two months really shaped my year in the best way possible, gave me a fresh perspective and a handful of memories and friends that I will never forget.

Mexico truly has my heart and I will without a doubt be returning to finish what I started

Maxwell: Routines and Travels

Hi again everyone, it’s Maxwell! After two months of being in Singapore, I’ve definitely started to fall into a routine. Due to the recent outbreak of the coronavirus, the majority of my classes have unfortunately been moved to E-learning, meaning that I have no physical lectures. As such, my days have mostly consisted of sleeping in, and trying to muster up the motivation to study. However on the bright side, I’ve also gained a lot more free time in the absence of lectures! Whether that means spending more time with my friends, or even heading over to Malaysia for the weekend, my days here have be super vibrant and colourful!

The Famous Petronas Twin Towers at Night

Speaking of travelling, the most exciting part of every exchange student’s time overseas occurs around this period, and that’s recess week. During recess week, local students and international students alike take the opportunity of a free week to travel all across Asia! As a kiwi who was born and bred in New Zealand, thoughts of travelling to foreign countries have always been more fantasy than possibility. This mostly because flights to any country outside of Australia were at least several hours long, and crazy expensive as well. Flying from Singapore however, is a different story entirely, with many countries famous for their tourism located less than a 2hrs flight away. From South Korea to Myanmar, no country is safe from Singaporean university students during recess week.

Friends and Elephant Friends at Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary


Me personally, I chose to go to Thailand and Indonesia. My friends and I came to this decision mainly because of two factors. The first reason was basic: both Thailand and Indonesia are quite close to Singapore and therefore flight tickets are dirt cheap. The second reason is more exciting and that’s because we had heard AMAZING things about both countries. Whether it was their beautiful beaches, sky-high mountains or historical temples, Thailand and Indonesia sounded like they had what it took to make a dream holiday.

Crazy Blue Waters at Phi Phi Islands

Our first stop was Phuket, and right off the bat we learnt a very valuable life lesson. Bad things happen, no matter how careful you are. Upon arriving at our Airbnb, we were expecting to be greeted by our host as had been arranged. Instead, we were forced to wait an hour outside, with no real method of contacting our host(we didn’t have any data or minutes on our phones), hoping that the next minute of waiting in the scorching sun would be the last. When we host finally arrived, we all let out a collective sigh of relief, glad that we could finally seek some shelter, only to find out that the Airbnb had not yet been cleaned. And so, there was naught we could do except wait outside for another 2hrs while the cleaners tidied up. After that misshap, everyone was so exhausted that we simply decided to call it a day.

Fortunately, the next day made up for it in spades. When people think Phuket, they think of the famous Phi Phi Islands, and that was exactly where we were headed. Phi Phi Islands really was gorgeous, worthy of its fame. From the crystal water, to the white beaches, we as if we were in paradise. The only downside was that since the islands are huge, we were regrettably only able to explore a small portion of it. I can also thank Phi Phi Islands for teaching me another life lesson. Life lesson number two for me was that no matter how much a place resembles paradise, you should never fully drop your guard. Being a popular tourist destination, there are tourist traps everywhere that you need to watch out for, such as compulsory donations before entering the island, and toilets that require fees to enter (this was surprisingly common throughout Thailand and Indonesia).

Golden Temple, Chiang Mai

Our next stop was Chiang Mai, and I can say that the Elephant Sanctuary was easily the highlight of that journey. Unfortunately there are many cases of unethical elephant treatment around Thailand such as elephant riding or manual labour, but the elephants in this particular sanctuary were treated like royalty! After hearing about how an elephant spends up to 18 hours a day just eating, I was really starting to question why I couldn’t have been born as an elephant. Once I got over being a human, we participated in the care taking of the elephants, which I found much more enjoyable than I had originally anticipated. We fed the elephants bananas, helped grind up their digestion medicine, and even gave them a bath in the lake! Oh, and did I mention that I also ate a scorpion at a local food market?

Early Morning Sunrise at Mount Batur

I love Bali. I really love it. Did I mention how much I love Bali? There were so many gorgeous and amazing places to see, I even started to lose track of world-class tourist attractions. One particular highlight of my time in Bali was when we woke up at 1am in order to trek up Mount Batur. The trek up was cold and hard and possibility even dangerous, but the view when the sun rose into the sky was simply majestic. At that moment, nationalities faded away as every hiker on that peak watched the sunrise quietly, and in collective awe.

Unfortunately, the hike back down was nowhere near as nice. After we tripped over for the 10th time, we decided that we had to find an alternate method. Conveniently enough, it was at that time that our tour guide mentioned the existence of motorcyclists nearby who were willing to take tourists down the mountain, for a fee. Any nagging worries I had about cheating the hike quickly disappeared as I got onto the motorbike. That ride quickly took its spot as one of the best moments of the trip, as we were treated to amazing views of lakes and villages; all while racing along at exhilarating speeds!

Broken Beach at Nusa Penida

Located to the east of Bali is Nusa Penida, the final stop on our recess week trip. Never had the phrase “saving the best until last” rung so true to me. As far as I’m concerned, Nusa Penida is just a collection of the world’s most beautiful places all placed conveniently on one island together for us to enjoy. Weaving along the ridiculously tight two-way road with only one lane , we visited places such as Angels Billabong, Broken Beach, and the famous Kelingking Beach. Is there such a thing as too many beautiful things in one place?

Kelingking Beach Ft.Me
Ianely Steep Hike, But Every Step Was Worth It

That’s about it for my travel story! The amazing sights I saw during those eleven days were definitely worth my currently messed up sleeping schedule. It’s been a long blog post, but I’ve really enjoyed sharing the stories of my trip with you. Thailand and Indonesia definitely exceeded my expectations, and if you ever get the opportunity to visit these two countries I highly recommend it! For now, I need to start studying again ugh. Until next time!

Harry: Brains like Berkeley

I’m now just about halfway through my semester abroad and time is flying by. For this entry I thought I’d focus on the academics and also some impression on Berkeley as a whole.  Pictures are unrelated, but give a bit of a peak into life.

I was a little apprehensive about coming to Berkeley because it has a reputation for being hard and highly competitive but so far, it’s been pretty on par with UoA. Berkeley, and from what I’ve heard, the American system more generally tends to have a lot of little assignments which are due weekly/biweekly. This means most weeks you have three or more things due and I think the constant looming deadlines contributes to the stressed out culture on campus. However, in my experience these have been really manageable so long as you stay on top of them. Also, having little assignments due all the time also forces you to review the content each week and helps you keep up. This should probably also be taken with a grain of salt if you’re a math/physics/engineering major though because the problem sets for some of those classes have a reputation for being particularly hard. I also haven’t sat my midterms yet so maybe I’ll be complaining more in my next entry!

Another difference is the diversity of classes available. Unlike UoA, classes at Berkeley have a lot less restrictions and prerequisites. There’s a four week period at the beginning of semester when you can swap classes around so you can judge for yourself whether the difficulty level is right for you or not. This has meant I’ve been able to take a couple of upper division psych courses without having ever done psych before. While there has been a bit of a steep learning curve and I’m not as well versed as other students, it’s been a great opportunity to study something I’m passionate about at higher and more specialised level.

I’ve also been attending the graduate colloquium for social psychology and once a week they invite a speaker from another university to present some of their research. So far, the speakers have been from UCLA, Stanford and Northwestern and it’s been inspiring to be at such an epicentre for academia. The talks also count towards your credit requirements.

More generally, being on campus is a lot of fun. We’ve been blessed with exceptional ‘winter’ weather (thanks climate change!) and I spend an hour or so most days just chilling in the glade with a book or some friends. I’m a commuter at UoA and my trip usually takes about an hr and a half each way so being so close to campus has been life-changing. The proximity of the students to the university definitely contributes to the feeling of community and strong campus culture and I’m enjoying it a lot. The people here are also great, because Berkeley is a competitive entry school known for its academics the students here are all passionate about learning which translates into a passion for life. Everyone you talk to has other things outside of school that they’re into and they’re generally really open and eager to tell you about it.

The Glade

Berkeley is also a great location, it’s just as easy to get into the heart of San Francisco as it is to be completely away from civilisation in Tilden Park. I haven’t done a lot of exploring yet because there’s so much going on at the co-ops and school but look forward to seeing more of the area in the coming weeks.

Until next time,

Fiona – Midterms, Spring and Soccer!

Hello y’all,

The first month at Cal is over and soooo many things have happened! Here is your inclusive insight into Fiona’s very lively rollercoaster ride in America:

Midterms

My first midterms are done and dusted and boy, I am so relieved. None of our lecturers were willing to instate a piazza or provide previous exams for practice and there are no lecture recordings, which made studying for the midterms quite a challenge and unnecessarily anxiety-inducing – at least for someone like me that can get a bit freaked out when I cannot practice under “fake” exam conditions with a practice exam beforehand. If I hadn’t found people to create group chats with before the midterms I think I would have just ended up sitting in a corner and feeling sorry for myself – so make sure you make some friends in each class that are happy to communicate with you and answer questions as they arise or give you lecture notes if you missed a lecture.

Midterms are generally ongoing because they are regular and at different frequencies in each class, unlike at UoA, but the first set of Midterms (after one month) was bunched together and quite challenging as everything had to be learnt at the same time with extremely limited resources. I know better now and here are a few tips that will hopefully make your studying at Cal a little easier:
1. Make sure you’re up-to-date and reflect on lectures on the same day;
2. Ask a bunch of questions during office hours (I cannot recommend enough smaller-group time with lecturers!)
3. Talk to other people in the group chats about lecture content.


To me, these things helped a lot in this huge University with limited access to resources and no class reps that could make facebook groups (I cannot stress this enough! We are very spoilt and coming here has made me feel quite grateful for what we have at UoA). I still love every single day here but feeling lost and ‘uncared’ for has had a big impact on me mentally until I found the right people and, as far as I am aware, it’s a very common thing here – so it’s important to make connections and find people you can relate to to have a good time at Cal! (Go Bears!!)

Spring feels like summer?

Now to my second topic – Spring feels like summer! Spring has only just begun but I wildly underestimated the weather (and apparently the impact of climate change in sunny North California) so I am sweaty all the time.

If you come here during spring semester make sure to bring summer clothing, you will need it for at least 2 reasons: Firstly, whilst the buses are free for Cal students, they come infrequently, go down very random routes, and there is no collective app that shows current schedules so you will find yourself walking through the spring heat regularly – I often ended up not trying to find a bus and just walking up and down hilly North Berkeley instead. Secondly (and the slightly more exciting reason), a lot of people like to chill in one of the many grassy areas and play frisbee or have a drink in between lectures. There’s limited shade but the vibes are amazing and it’s easy to feel right at home – lots of people have picnic blankets or hammocks and I can guarantee you that there will almost always be a doggo that’s chasing a ball that you can sneakily observe.

On another note, I recently decided to raid the ReUse store on campus that has cheap second-hand clothing and is student-run so now I am kitted out with a lot of promotional Cal t-shirts, all for 2$ each, and feel like a real Bear that doesn’t need to evaporate in the sun. (Go Bears!)
The only thing is that I am starting to miss the beach a lot – I used to go nearly every day in New Zealand (rain or shine!) and the closest beach here is nearly 1.5 hours away on the bart and bus. I haven’t had time to go because I finished the midterms just recently and something just doesn’t feel quite right without sand, water and fish’n’chips nearby!

Intramural soccer team!

Lastly, I am very excited to tell y’all about Intramural sports teams! I didn’t realise that there was more than the famous athletics teams but when my Golden Bear Orientation leader told me about Intramural sports I knew I had to get a whiff of American soccer! I decided to join as a free agent which means that a captain from any team can invite me into the team if they’re within capacity. It’s a small fee (~$25?) to sign up for a rec membership and I had to buy some new turf boots (~$45) but everything else was pretty straight-forward. The games are weekly and so far we’ve had two – which we both lost (yikes)! It has been so much fun participating in a team sports and just being able to enjoy the game and be around people from different countries where we all communicate in the same ‘language’ on the field has been awesome. The other free agents and I are included in various activities, on and off the field, so I feel like we truly are part of the team and that’s been a great experience. (Go Bears!)

Intramural soccer – we played pretty late, at 9pm! That blurry chunk is me!

As y’all can see, there’s lots going on and I’m having a great time, even if the academic side is a little stressful. I’m looking forward to the next months and can’t wait to tell you more!!

Bye for now!