Stellenbosch University Summer School – Megan Binnie

I decided to attend Stellenbosch Summer School because it offered a unique and challenging academic experience with an all-inclusive social and cultural programme. By choosing Stellenbosch, I knew I would get to study fulfilling, intellectually stimulating modules while also exploring the Western Cape of South Africa with the guidance of local students.

A fantastic opening function was held on arrival to welcome us all to the programme. A group of performers called Drum Café came to play authentic African music for us, making it interactive so that we all had the chance to play, dance and sing along. Afterwards, we introduced ourselves to one another over some wine from the local vineyards and watched the South African students dancing to Afrikaans music, called Sokkie. I also got to experience the popular SA tradition of having a Braai, which is like a BBQ with music and dancing!

The university organised some optional excursions for us, so I chose a one-day safari at Aquila Private Game Reserve and Spa. This was an experience like no other – we drove out on a cold, crisp African morning and saw buffalo, rhinos, lions, zebras and elephants. The baby rhino was super curious about our adventure and came right over to our truck, flicking his ears and sniffing the air! We managed to get very close to the elephants which was amazing for me, as I’d never seen one before. Getting up close to the lions was a little scarier, but luckily for us they were happy and undisturbed by our presence!

On our first weekend we visited Cape Town, where we rode the sight-seeing city tour bus around. The highlight was visiting the District Six museum and hearing the story of our guide who had grown up there with her family. They lived there happily for years until the State declared it a ‘whites only’ area during the apartheid area, forcing her family to relocate and bulldozing the whole district. Hearing about her experience was very emotional, but really brought to life my studies of apartheid South Africa and opened my eyes to the significance with which it effected (and still does affect) people’s lives. On a lighter note, we had the chance to view all of Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain and ventured up there in a cable car. Due to the winter weather, we only managed a small glimpse of the beautiful view as the clouds passed and spent most of our time enjoying coffee and cake in the mountain-top café, before grabbing lunch at an open-front beach bar and café. The next morning, we watched the sunrise at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront and spent a few hours relaxing, enjoying South Africa’s best wines and street performers there.

Back at Stellenbosch, the summer school staff organized a South African Food Evening where we could sample popular foods of the nation, including; milk tart, koeksisters and pap. A few nights later they organised a career café, where a former Stellenbosch student came to speak about how his international experiences and connections have shaped his career and personal life. He helped us see the value in international experiences through his interesting and inspiring story. Since Stellenbosch is a small university town and relatively quiet out of term time, we were taken on a weekend away to Mykonos Resort on the Langebaan coast. It resembled a small Greek island and was the chance for us to relax from the intensity of our studies! We went on a yacht trip there and used the spa, which was amazing and super cheap. It was a really nice touch to our experience to have a mini holiday weekend.

On the journey back from our weekend away we were given a few hours at Spice Route Tastings, where we received vouchers to use on chocolate, wine, beer, biltong, or coffee. Stellenbosch is a wine region so as we enjoyed a nice meal at the pizzeria there, we overlooked the beautiful scenery of vineyards and mountains.

At Stellenbosch I studied South African Political History, which gave me a detailed insight into the history of a country I had never previously visited or studied. My second elective; Transitional Justice, has had a huge effect on me and my future plans. We were taught by a practitioner working as a peace-process advisor for war-torn countries, and mediator for victims of gross human rights violations. We examined peace processes in a variety of countries, including South Africa, Argentina, Chile etc. and were required to suggest and develop a strategy for peace in a country of choice. The chance to work with students from different academic backgrounds around the world was valuable in broadening my perspective on the controversial and sensitive issues of discussion. The elective was extremely engaging and inspiring, opening my eyes to an important line of work that I may wish to pursue in the future and helping me make international connections to facilitate my future career. Overall, my summer school experience at Stellenbosch was everything I had hoped for and more! Thank you Associated Commonwealth Universities for the grant!

Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg – Niklas Brag

Why Russia?

As part of my studies in International Management, I had the opportunity to go abroad for my 3rd year. As I had studied Russian for the past two years, it was an obvious choice to make knowing that I was curious about the culture and I wanted to experience it for myself. Personally, my main criteria for my study abroad experience was to visit a country I had never been to before. Russia felt like the perfect opportunity to discover a country with great historical and artistic heritage. My main objective was to improve my language skills and learn more about their culture.

The initial reaction I get from almost 100% of the people (including Russians) when I tell them that I went to Russia for my study abroad is: “but why?”. I always had this feeling that people were apprehensive of Russians due to their country’s international perspective. However, all the Russians I had met up until this point had always been really nice and caring. I wanted to experience this for myself and traveled without any expectations or judgements.

Initial thoughts and accommodation

When I landed in Saint Petersburg, I was nicely greeted by a student from HSE that I had ‘buddied-up’ with in order to help me at the airport. Already, you feel the change in scenery and the language. Nobody speaks English, Uber is not the main transport service and you quickly realise the importance of cash. On the ride to my student accommodation that I had been assigned to, I could see the landscapes of the Saint Petersburg suburbs which were mainly filled by big, grey blocks of apartment buildings. The student accommodations were no exception to this which can come as a shock at first, but it actually made me enjoy the trip even more.

I was shown around the building and was given a room that I shared with 3 other Russian students from the university. Again, the initial thought of having to share a room with 3 other strangers for 5 months when you don’t really speak the language, can be quite nerve-wracking. However, I was immediately really well received and the 3 made me feel welcome instantly. All three were incredibly nice and enabled me to experience the real student life in Russia. Obviously, there was always a possibility to move and rent an apartment. Nonetheless, that would hinder you from meeting any actual local and even the international students all lived in the same halls. Overall, living in the student accommodations in Russia made the experience much more enjoyable and it turned out to be an unforgettable memory. Maybe the living standards wouldn’t be as nice as somewhere in London, but I never made my choice based upon comfort.



Higher School of Economics – ERASMUS

During a year abroad, changing university will always be a little bit challenging in terms of getting around, timetables, teaching or dealing with administration. This can be a little bit tricky in Russia and it will be important to keep yourself organised by having the right documents in order to provide everything upon arrival. Other than this, I enjoyed the teaching quality at the university. I had the opportunity to choose all my modules, so I decided to take some that were more history based. On top of that I had 8h of Russian per week which was really essential in my language progress. The majority of the students at the university were Russian but I was in class with mostly Erasmus students. During the semester I met an incredibly diverse set of people and made friends from all over Europe. The time abroad enables you to build a new set of social skills and will inevitably make you feel more confident on the future.

Saint Petersburg – The city

The historical parts of the city are beautiful and are more alike European cities such as Stockholm in terms of architecture. The city is divided by the Nevsky river which froze during the winter and there are canals that flows around the city. I had never experienced the cold like this and the city transformed with the snow. My favourite part of the city was the cultural heritage and the incredible museums that were available. Being able to visit the Hermitage when it was snowing, going to the Russian museum or the Erarta for modern arts and even the Fabergé museum (the little eggs that you see in movies) was just unbelievable. Overall, I got to see art that was very different from what I had seen before which nurtured my desire to know more about the culture. Additionally, I went to see a football game from the local Zenith Saint Petersburg team in their brand-new stadium. To sum up, I had an incredible experience in Russia, discovering the local culture, the language, arts and made great friends along the way. I definitely plan to go back in order to visit more parts of the country.