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Add an OE to Your Degree!

The ‘Overseas Experience’ (or OE) is a long-standing Kiwi tradition. Most people take it after graduating but you don’t have to wait that long to get some global perspective. You can do it while studying by going on a student exchange! In Semester 1 of 2014, I was accepted by the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) via the 360° Auckland Abroad Exchange Programme. Having gone through the application process and experienced the ups-and-downs of living in a foreign country, I have 10 useful tips to share with those of you who are considering embarking on an exchange:

1.     Pick the right university. There are 117 universities in 25 countries to choose from with Auckland Abroad. It’s important to do your background research and select at least 3 different universities that you would be willing to attend, as you may not get your first choice. Things to consider include the timing and length of your exchange (1 or 2 semesters), the compatibility of host university courses with the University of Auckland (UoA), and your proficiency in languages spoken in the host country.

2.     Apply for scholarships. Although your tuition fees will still be paid to UoA while on exchange, you will need to cover expenses for flights, living costs, accommodation, health and travel insurance, course materials, visas etc. UoA funds many scholarships such as the 360 Auckland Abroad Exchange Travel Awards, Universitas 21 Awards, and Special Grants (for students at targeted exchange universities). You can also apply for StudyLink student loan/allowance support.

3.     Get your accommodation sorted ASAP. You can either flat or live on-campus. Flatting is typically cheaper but university accommodation is more convenient. I chose to live on-campus at International House (iHouse) as it was easier to meet people, however, entry was selective so I had to write essays to get in.

4.     Contact any relatives or friends in your host country. I had relatives in Texas that helped me to settle-in and set-up essentials such as a US mobile phone number. I saved a lot of money by staying with my cousin in San Francisco during spring break. It also helps to make friends with other UoA students going on the same exchange.

5.     Take interesting courses that aren’t available in Auckland. For example, I took a nano-engineering elective. There is a General Education exemption for students on exchange programmes meaning you can fulfil your Gen-Ed requirements at your host university instead.

6.     Join extracurricular clubs. It’s difficult to get to know people during lectures so most of the friends you make will come from these clubs. There are often a wide variety of clubs available to suit your interests. At UCSD, I joined the table-tennis and indoor soccer clubs as well as the anime & manga club. A year has passed since my exchange, yet I still keep in contact with many people from these clubs.

7.     Embrace your host country’s culture. Due to its proximity to Mexico, California has a strong Spanish influence. I learnt a bit of Spanish from my Mexican-American flat-mate and he often took me out to try the local Mexican cuisine.

8.     Keep to a budget so you have more money to travel. I didn’t spend much while studying so I could splurge on Broadway shows in New York during the summer (although I still took advantage of ticket deals). Do some shopping if the exchange rate is favourable. I bought a Surface Pro 3 in the US for $300 cheaper that it would be in NZ.

9.     Go on a road trip! It’s a great way to see other parts of your host country (or neighbouring countries), take some awesome pics, and bond with friends. Just make sure one of your mates can drive if you don’t have an international driver’s license. When I was in California, I took a day-trip with my iHouse flat-mate across the border to Tijuana, Mexico.

10.  Home-sickness can hit hard, especially in the first few weeks before you’ve adjusted to your new surroundings. Keep it at bay by scheduling regular Skype sessions with your family and friends back at home. Use Facebook or Instagram to keep them updated with photos from your trip. These photos will also help you remember your exchange once you’ve returned to NZ.

My American exchange was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. Over the 7 months I spent in the States, I became more independent, bolstered my CV, saw the sights and made great friends. The exchange also shaped my future plans, as I intend to return for post-graduate study. I encourage anyone who is looking for an adventure to go on an exchange. You won’t regret it!