Hannah and I from the class of 2016 went on exchange to the far-away countries of Brazil and Hong Kong respectively and came away with most different experiences and lessons learnt. This interview reports the inspiring moments we had, challenges we faced and advice that future BIDSters going on exchange might find interesting both for the application process and the actual exchange. If you have any questions, feel free to post in the comment section.
- How did you go about your application?
Hannah: After ensuring that I had the necessary financial means to travel abroad, I tried to figure out what it was that I was (not) looking for when going on exchange. As a development student, I wanted to get a possibly less eurocentric perspective on development by studying in the Global South which consequently limited my choice of universities. Being aware however that this was one of the few opportunities to take non-development-related courses, I was very keen on studying ‘pure’ sociology and anthropology. After some research about the different universities, the respective faculties and its teachers, the choice of applying to Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), my Brazilian exchange university as first choice was rather straight forward, especially after having lived in Latin America before and with a vague idea of a rich and rather critical social science tradition in Brazil in mind. This first step was probably the most time-consuming, however it helped me consequently for the motivation letter. In writing such, I can recommend to try to motivate the exchange mostly academically such as related to your research interest or research area.
Yannick: To me the idea of broadening my perspective was most important; however, in a different way than to Hannah. While I felt that BIDS was successfully teaching me to think critically, I did not think that I had the basis to criticise the relatively unknown target of the heavy criticisms: mainstream economics and business thinking. Since my preferred location were Asian countries to experience a new set of cultures sort of ‘along the way’, I read about the Asian universities that LU had agreements with and picked those with a focus on the mentioned areas. The motivation letter did not pose a big problem for me as going abroad, especially to places outside Europe, seems like a logical step for a development student, so that I finally got admitted to the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Fortunately, their exchange organisers prepared me well and made me think things through thoroughly (what an alliteration!) before leaving. Otherwise, administrative things might become messy, so do those in time and don’t let laziness get into the way of an amazing exchange experience.
- Was it hard to adapt to the new environment, and what helped you with it?
Yannick: The exchange was a big step for me as I had the tendency to feel very uncomfortable in new social situations. Therefore I forced myself in the beginning to go to everything that was offered to get closer to other exchange students. The fact that I had decided beforehand to move in with local students also helped broaden my new friend spectrum from the beginning. I did not have many administrative problems as my host university, CUHK, was very organised, which enabled me to put such a strong focus on overcoming my biggest challenge, the social insecurity, which eventually worked out just fine. Culturally speaking, things went a little different of course, but with the mindset that one should not oversee the vast similarities outweighing the differences, I got through that smoothly and could view the discrepancies with academic curiosity rather than fear.
Hannah: Even though I have lived in several foreign places over the course of the last decade, the adaptation to the new environment was more difficult than I had expected it to be. However, rather than a particular ‘exotic culture shock’, was the fact of getting used to live in what I perceived as a megacity and finding a room in such, seemed even more difficult. What helped me with these practical things as finding a room, improving my close-to-nonexistent Portuguese skills at the time or simply feeling somewhat guided and welcomed, was mostly getting in contact and building relationships through couchsurfing, the university provided ‘exchange friends’ and through social and political activities both inside and outside university.
- How was your academic experience?
Hannah: I was very satisfied with my academic experience at UFRGS. Even though the university infrastructure such as the lecture halls or libraries were significantly worse equipped than their equivalents at Lund University, the academic experience as such, foremost the lectures and professors, were outstanding. The low student/teacher-ratio allowed for fruitful and challenging discussions, often with wider socio-political relevance. Even as a student, I had the impression that my opinion was taken seriously and that I was encouraged to think critically. I believe that this reflects a general standard in the social science department of UFRGS, even though I might have been particularly lucky with the choice of the classes and teachers, due to previous advice from fellow enrolled students.
Yannick: My academic experience could be described as mixed. I took classes from many different departments which was greatly reflected in the quality of teaching. This blend of math-heavy and challenging economics courses and others which rather reiterated issues that had been discussed in BIDS already however enabled me to find a good balance between academic, social and cultural learning. Nonetheless, I was content with the overall quality of the classes which, at least in the social sciences, were organised similarly to here in Lund. In economics the focus was more on frequent homework and applying on our own what had been ‘spilled’ at us students in classes thorugh completely one-way communication. Such teaching was unusual but refreshingly challenging and in the end, few things beat the satisfaction of solving a math riddle.
- How did you spend your time outside of class?
Yannick: While many fellow exchange students went travelling a lot during the studies, flying to all kinds of countries over the weekend, I focussed on actually getting to know Hong Kong and often was just wandering through random streets and exploring the city ‘bottom-up’, if you will (and later the easily reachable Mainland Chinese city Shenzhen as well). My local friends were very helpful in that respect. In the university I did lots of different sports because the university sports system just makes it so convenient. I was thus in the university football team but also learning new sports, if just to get in contact with new people. After the semester was over, I met up with two fellow BIDSters who had been on exchange to Asian countries as well, and went for about one-and-a-half month to Indonesia and Myanmar, which was an intense and interesting experience. For me spending a good amount of time at these place to actually get to know them on a deeper level was definitely the right thing to do, so I am glad that I saved my travel money for this trip.
Hannah: Even outside of class, I spent a lot of time on campus. Since I was genuinely interested in the subjects I took at UFRGS, I read a lot of the course literature in my free time. Besides the cheap cafeteria, there was a lot of (political) student organization happening on campus, which I was keen on participating in. Other than that, Porto Alegre offered a wide range of different cultural, social and political activities, and generally a lot of places to discover. I was furthermore part of a language tandem that helped me to improve my Portuguese and who with time also became a close friend. Once feeling more comfortable in in the city, I started to travel within the state and to neighbouring states on weekends sometimes and at the end of my stay.
- Which were the most important insights you gained?
Hannah: The most important insights for me were lessons learnt from the vibrant political student organizing at UFRGS and the slightly different mode of organizing university with a possibly stronger critical approach and focus on the societal relevance of the learning outcome. On a personal note, I realized (once again ;)) the importance of being organized, definitely a must to survive the Brazilian bureaucratic jungle.
Yannick: Apart from the scholarly insights into the impressive fields of economics and political philosophy among others, I mainly cherish the achievements on a personal level: I learned that I can overcome the obstacles that kept me from things I wanted to do all along by persistently reflecting about my goals and keeping them in focus. Therefore the exchange has made me significantly more independent and strong as a person. And, of course, the cultural experiences that keep your mind open and tolerant need to be mentioned here as well, something that unites Hannah, me and probably 99% of BIDS exchange students.
- Advice for fellow BIDSters set to go on exchange.
Yannick: My most important advice would be to know what you want to put your focus on and then go for it. If you go abroad for the culture, then really devote your time to experiencing it; and if you are in for an academic challenge, maybe don’t go drinking every weekend. And if things do not work out as planned or you feel alone, remember that this is just as valuable an experience as all the beautiful ones you will make. In the end, no matter what happens, you will grow as a person.
Hannah: I agree with Yannick, in that I think it is important to know what you are looking for when choosing to go for exchange. Furthermore, the application process can be quite overwhelming and messy, but in hindsight it is definitely worth the struggle. And on a final note: once on exchange things might not work out as you have imagined them to in the first place. It’s okay, don’t be too hard with yourself if they don’t. Obviously, a single formula for the perfect exchange simply does not exist 🙂
Interview conducted by Yannick Schwarz in collaboration with Hannah Reustle