Maria Pappas

Date: SP2, 2017
Degree Program: Bachelor of Laws, Psychological Science
Host University: KU Leuven
Host Country: Belgium

Why did you choose your host university?

I had travelled to Europe once with my family and had a burning desire to get back and experience a whole new different culture. The thought of doing an exchange in an English speaking country really deterred me as I was wanting to immerse myself into a challenge. I knew I was set on Europe but I chose KU Leuven based on the fact it was one of the best universities in Europe and also the fact that it was a 20 minute ride by train to Brussels International Airport, which meant access to travel would be relatively easy.

What was the university like?

The structure of KU Leuven differed to UniSA as we only had lectures for each subject we were enrolled in. The conversion to ECTS does not perfectly align with our credits so be prepared to do more subjects in Leuven than you would have back at home. I was very lucky that I only had to complete three subjects from UniSA which equated to four subjects in Leuven (some of my friends had to do six or seven)! Classes were taught in a strict lecture format, with not much input from students and assessment for most classes were an 100% exam at the end of the semester. Luckily for me, I spoke to enough people who warned me about the difficulty of the subjects at KU Leuven and suggested I try find some with assessment during the semester or subjects with no exam. I would suggest trying to enrol into a mix of courses with different assessment (which you can look up prior to enrolling) and choose based on this strategy, as every person I knew who did subjects with only exams (4-7 courses) ended up failing.

Speaking to the locals, failing courses was considered normal which I found quite bizarre (and also intimidating) as I was not used to this back at home. I will reiterate that it is very important for you to choose your subjects wisely – I chose a mix of courses which interested me, had a range of different assessments and which offered a good timetable so I ended up doing just fine.

Come exam time, students have two weeks of SWOTVAC and three weeks of exams. Everyone studies for their exams in the libraries so be prepared to get to the library a half an hour before it opens as the locals start to line up from then! I found that system really strange but actually really enjoyed studying away from my room and in the library (compared to what I would do at home).

What did you gain from your exchange experience and has it changed the way you think or altered your approach to life?

It taught me that you can really do whatever you put your mind to. Going across the globe to live and study in a different city where you know no one and have no safety net was unreal. It sounds cliché to say that you come back a different person but the experience in itself is so character building and you truly learn so much about yourself, your ambitions and your perspective on everything drastically changes. My experience has really changed the way I feel about stepping out of my comfort zone and immersing myself into new challenges. Like all travel, I really now have a greater desire to explore what is beyond the constraints of Adelaide and seek new opportunities wherever I can.

What accommodation options were available to you?  How affordable was accommodation and would you recommend the same option to others?

The KU Leuven website is really helpful in the way it sets out all the options for student accommodation, but you will be overwhelmed with how many options they have to choose. I was very lucky that I had a friend who had gone to KU Leuven the semester before me so I discussed accommodation options with her and asked her what she suggested from her experience. Funnily enough, she did not recommend her residence (Waterview) as it was full of local Belgian students who are generally quite reserved and unwilling to make friends with international students. After this I was pretty confused as to what option I would choose, but ended up being set up with someone who was living over there doing his Masters from Adelaide and moved in to an apartment with him and another Belgian student.

While I was over there, I loved being in my apartment and completely understood why the residence did not seem like it was the best option. The only drawback I had from my living arrangement is that I was not able to meet many new people in this type of arrangement. Looking back on my experience, I met a few people who were in an ‘international residence’ which had no Belgian students and they absolutely loved their time there so I would highly recommend that option if you do not care about having a shared bathroom and kitchen. This residence seemed like a great way to meet more international students (who in my experience were generally friendlier than the locals).

Describe your travel experiences; did you travel locally or to neighbouring countries? 

While on my exchange I took every possible opportunity I could to travel. I had saved a lot of money knowing that I wanted to go to as many places as possible. Thanks to Ryan Air, it was very easy booking cheap airfares for different destinations every weekend with groups of friends. While on exchange I travelled through Belgium, The Netherlands, Scotland, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy, Poland, Germany, Spain and Greece (and then travelled for another five weeks after exams were finished). Looking back, I think I was only in Leuven for about three weekends in five months. We also had a two week break in the middle of the semester which was a good opportunity to do a lot of travel. Although I was away for most weekends which some people might find strange, the city of Leuven was majorly a university city, meaning all local Belgians would go home on the weekends, and all international students would be travelling therefore meaning the city was a ghost town on the weekend.

Describe how you adjusted to life in a different country and how you met new people.

The best way of meeting people was definitely in the orientation week where KU Leuven organises plenty of international student events. It is imperative to attend these events as this is where you will meet everyone as people tend to quickly form groups in this week.

Living in Leuven itself I found incredible. As I am so used to getting in my car in Adelaide if I want to go everywhere, I had the luxury of being a 5 minute stroll from city centre, where even the furthest place in Leuven would only take me 25 minutes to walk. All students would either ride bikes or walk which gave the city a great vibe and the city itself was very beautiful.

As I mentioned before, the Belgian students are very reserved although I was lucky enough to befriend a few who were lovely. Looking back I think they don’t bother trying to make friends with international students because they know they all eventually leave. The group of international students that I made friends with were lovely which made my time in Leuven all the more better.

Can you see any benefits from this exchange to your future career?

I am graduating this year and am really hoping future employers will see undertaking a semester exchange as a positive asset to have. I believe it does develop your interpersonal skills in ways which can only benefit any future endeavours you may have; such as working with people from all different backgrounds, working in teams, lifting your confidence, independence and persistence.

I also feel more open minded about working overseas, although unfortunately my degree does not allow me to go very far (only to Commonwealth countries).

What advice would you give to a student who was hesitant or considering joining the exchange program?

Say YES. I was contemplating travelling once my degree was over but doing it through the exchange program was the best way to meet new people, see so much of Europe while still studying and not put your life on hold. One of the greatest assets to the exchange program is the amount of financial help you get from HECS, UniSA grants plus any scholarships you may get. I worked really hard in order to have enough money to go over but ended up having way more than enough with all the additional accessible top ups. The opportunity itself is something I recommend everyone do if possible, and if all that does not convince someone – every single person I have met has returned from exchange saying it was the best time of their life, and who wouldn’t want that!

Top Tips:
Sometimes it seems like the whole process can be a bit overwhelming but do not let that deter you. Immerse yourself in whatever you can and remember to make the most of the opportunity of doing a semester abroad.

Push yourself beyond your limits because before you know, it’ll be all over and you don’t want to come back home regretting anything you didn’t do.

Areas of study and research

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