In the spirit of international exchange, we would like to share with you a different and retrospective point of view. In this post, Sonia (who had her exchange in Ireland) gives advice about how to choose an exchange destination, particularly for SMU students.
So you’ve finally gone through about 3 years of SMU life and you can’t wait to get the hell away from school for a while. You’ve seen the photos on seniors’ facebook pages, you’ve seen them partying it up on yachts while you’re stressing over exams. It’s pay back time.
But before you can get to the fun bits, you’re stuck at making the most important decision of all: exchange go where?? The admin work to apply for an exchange is an absolute nightmare, and you’ve got 5 choices to make but wayyyy too many options (160+ exchange partners???) and you don’t even know what continent some of the countries are on. How to choose?
Just about the most Irish REPRESENTZ! photo I could find haha
I’ve just got back from my own exchange in Spring/2012 with University College of Dublin in Ireland, and thought I might share some of my experience to help in your decision-making process. There were a few very important issues I failed to consider during my own exchange that I hope you won’t miss out on. I’ll be using mainly European examples, but these are principles you can extend to anywhere in the world.
Bear in mind that I am biased as a student who went on exchange to get away from school work, to travel and hang out with the locals, all on a pretty tight budget.The first three points I’ve listed are what I consider the most essential issues to consider.
- School’s policy on missed classes
This is probably the most important issue to consider. You don’t want to find yourself stuck in another SMU halfway across the world – after all, you left home to get away from all that blather and bother of project work and class participation. The harsh reality is that yes, there are exchange partners that will fail you the moment you miss more than two classes in the semester.I know for a fact that there are a few schools in France that do this. There are several more, but if you don’t want to have to maintain a 100% attendance, make sure you do background checks. I suggest that you download course outlines, determine if class participation is graded, check out the school’s website, and email seniors who have been there to find out more.
For UCD, I pretty much only attended the first week of classes. Attendance was never taken, nor was class participation a graded consideration. I even missed a presentation date!! It was the most liberating experience of my life haha
- Living cost
For someone on a budget, this is an essential issue to consider. You don’t want to be on exchange, forced to stay home and eat rice with garlic chilli for every meal.
Make sure to do your research, most of the information should be easily available online. It’s pretty useful to search “most expensive countries to live in” and cancel the top ten from your list. The biggest costs will go towards accommodation and food. I found it useful to do up a sheet on excel to have a rough idea of monthly and total cost to ascertain if it was within my budget.
For myself, I ended up paying about $8000 SGD for 5 months in Ireland, with $4000 going to accommodation alone (even though it was on-campus housing, aiyo). A night out would cost me 20 euros, and a ‘cheap’ meal would be at least 10 euros. I was living off ham and cheese sandwiches to make sure I had enough money to go out. On the other hand, friends in Poland were living like kings!! Accommodation was half the price (and twice the size), food in a restaurant + drink would cost 10 euros, going out cost almost nothing… Sigh.Also consider that SMU does have grants (IBF grants) for certain areas such as Russia, China, Central Asia and South America. These grants can be worth as much as $7000 (Russia) and could be worth a look. Do nonetheless consider cost of living because in the case of Moscow, the grant was a large sum but so were living costs. You’ll probably want to stretch the dollars as far as you can.
- Ease of travel
If you foresee a lot of traveling for yourself, you really need to consider location. I was in Ireland, which was a stupid decision because the country is an island, meaning the only option I ever had for travel was plane.
Being on continental Europe opens up these options a lot more to include buses and trains, alternatives that are SO much cheaper and flexible. For example, a ryanair flight would be a minimum of 20 – 30 euros (one-way) to just next door in the UK, not including admin fees or luggage. On the other hand, a bus from Paris to London could be as low as 2 pounds if booked in advance – and there isn’t any additional luggage fee! I would have saved a lot more by choosing a more central area. Sad face.Also consider if the place you are going has budget flights. Ireland saved itself by having the Irish airline ryanair which really goes everywhere, but note that there are some countries without budget flight connections (usually smaller cities or countries less emphatic on tourism, for example Slovenia). I would do a quick check with www.skyscanner.com to have a rough idea.
- When to go
The year you go doesn’t really matter in my opinion. Some people are more comfortable with freezing their gpa when it’s been established, some use it as motivation to keep chionging in school, others say it will ruin you once you return to SMU. Most go in their third or fourth year, for myself I went sometime in the middle of my 5 years. No real difference to me what year you decide to go.
The only thing really worth considering is: semester 1 or semester 2? To be honest, semester 2 (Jan to May) is much better because you then have Summer to travel, or return to Singapore and get back in the rhythm of things. If you leave in sem 1, you run the risk of being forced to return to SMU late (week 2/3). Not a great idea because you definitely will need time to get back into the SMU mentality, plus you’ll have to deal with BOSS bidding while you’re still on exchange. Yuck.
- Cultural immersion
If you’re choosing your exchange school based on a cultural reason, such as language or investigating if it’s somewhere you want to move to, then by all means let this be your pivot issue. Do nonetheless consider the rest of the issues I have raised.
- Modules offered
Unless you’re absolutely sure this school has THE module you want to take, this should be the least important issue to consider.
I initially decided to pick my exchange school based on the modules offered. I wanted to actually learn something from exchange. I soon realized, however, that I was to be sorely disappointed with the level of engagement between student, professor and content. Classes were dead boring, and I was missing too many sessions to really follow the material anyway. So let’s be honest. It really doesn’t matter what modules you’ll be taking, just so long as they allow you to clear sufficient credits in SMU. Nonetheless, this has to be qualified. Not all schools are the same, and I have heard of people who truly enjoyed their classes. Ask seniors for their views.
- School’s Reputation
Again, unless you’re planning to use exchange as something to fluff up your CV (in which case you’re probably thinking of applying to an Ivy League school), this is really unimportant.
Apart from modules offered, this was the second principle I used in making my exchange school choice. I was to be incredibly disappointed.
Drawing on the experience of friends and my own, school ranking is really misleading. UCD had one of the top business schools in Europe, but I completely overestimated the kind of intellectual stimulation I was going to get. I was often let down by the quality of presentations shared by peers as well.
Friends who went to number one schools in other places like Italy also said they were extremely disappointed with not just the communication of material in-class, but also their peers. One particular horror story was a friend who was grouped with 8 students (including post-graduates and phd students) with really poor group work ethics – they were holding 8 hour long meetings for everyone to huddle around 1 computer to type out a 500-word summary. No way am I looking for another LTB experience during exchange.
So really, school ranking doesn’t mean very much. You probably won’t get much more stimulation than you will in SMU.
- Partnership history
How much experience does the partner have in hosting SMU students, or even holding exchange programs in general? Most of our exchange partners are well used to the whole thing and even have dedicated administrators to assist you during the process or have organized orientation sessions.
Some schools, however, have very little experience. This could have alarming consequences for you. Daniel was in Moscow State University, and it was new to having exchange students come over. Apart from having a poor orientation program, more dire was that MSU and SMU did not see eye-to-eye on how credits for modules should be granted. As a result, Daniel had to deal with an insane amount of administrative work and communications with both schools and despite his best efforts, was unable to clear two whole module credits with SMU. He now has to take an extra modified-term to graduate on time.
You don’t want to end up in the same sticky situation. The best way to find out if the school is new to exchanges is by filling up the oasis worksheets: are there historical modules listed in the dropdown list? Sometimes, however, this just means the school is a new exchange partner with SMU. Check if the university has anything about exchange programs on its website or drop the admin an email and ask.If you want to be part of the pioneer batch, the most important thing is to settle the administrative part of module clearance with both of the schools’ admins. For this, it would be best to approach OCS to determine what exactly you need to be granted credits if there is anything unfamiliar listed in the partner’s course outlines (in Daniel’s case, part of the confusion was that one course was part academic and part internship).
Some may avoid certain countries based on whether it’s ‘safe or not’. In my opinion, anywhere you go will have risks. Do you think Dublin is safe? Conventional wisdom would say yes – except one of my best mates got stabbed twice in the back and once in the thigh during a night out. Paris and London too are getting increasingly dodgy. It really doesn’t matter where you go. Get to know the locals or do some googling and you’ll soon find out which places you should avoid. Be smart, and you should stay alive.
Again, I recognize that I wrote this with my own biases. Go through these principles and weigh them as you deem fit; after all, we go on exchange for different reasons.
A word of caution:
it is possible to fail a module whilst on exchange.
You don’t have to be getting As but definitely aim for at least Cs or a low B. I barely scraped two Ds during my semester. It would be damn idiot to have to delay your graduation because you couldn’t clear enough modules on exchange. Whatever you choose to do, never take it for granted that your Azn prowess will get you a pass. You’re still going to have to study, but if you play your cards right, it won’t be anything like the mugging we do in SMU.
Most importantly, stay safe and have fun!
This article was originally published on http://www.soniamao.com/2013/01/smu-exchange-go-where.html?m=1.
What do you think about this advice? Got any of your own? Share them with us in the comments section below!