An international experience with countless memories

BY HOLGER WILLEMS, JOLIEN VAN OPSTAL, and CAROLINA SHAHRESTANI. Among students, Erasmus+ is the most widely known scholarship programme. Erasmus exchanges are so highly in demand one would almost forget that there are many other funding opportunities for students wishing to travel abroad for a study period or traineeship. Take Holger, Jolien and Carolina, for instance. Holger and Jolien attended summer schools in Utrecht and Zürich, whereas Carolina decided to set off for Norway to do a traineeship.

Holger Willems has a master’s degree in civil engineering. Jolien Van Opstal will soon graduate in medicine. Carolina Shahrestani studied international politics and will soon leave for South Korea to continue her studies.

Biomedical images in the mountains

Holger Willems

HOLGER WILLEMS – My name is Holger and on 31 August 2020, I started a summer course on Biomedical Imaging at ETH Zürich and the University of Zürich. I was lucky enough to spend two intense but interesting weeks in the beautiful city of Zürich.

While working towards my Master’s degree in Civil Engineering, I did not participate in any Erasmus exchanges, which, in retrospect, I regret. The summer course in Zürich gave me the opportunity to discover a new country and culture, and to experience what it is like to study at another top university.  

I certainly did discover and experience new things.  On weekdays, we could swim in Lake Zürich after a long day of classes. In the weekend, I took the train to travel to the most beautiful places in Switzerland to hike along mountain paths, swim in the river and explore new towns.

Lago di Lugano

It goes without saying that, academically speaking, I have also learnt a lot. In two weeks’ time, I acquired a complete overview of biomedical imaging and the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from the atomic level up to the level of cells and human beings. In addition to this, we were able to experience up close how these devices are used in university hospitals and labs. ETH professors are very strong on theory, but they also enjoy explaining their state-of-the-art research, which keeps the students attentive and which encourages them to explore things.  I could have earned four ECTS credits in this summer course. I did not take the credits, however, since I had already assembled sixty-one credits, but it is definitely worth checking out how many credits you can earn before you start a summer school. 

In terms of costs, life in Switzerland is easily twice as expensive as in Belgium. Fortunately, I received a scholarship, which covered about fifty percent of my enrolment fee, meals, travel expenses and accommodation costs. To me, the investment was one hundred percent worthwile and I would gladly make it again. Above all, an international experience broadens your thinking and provides you with a different point of view. Especially in a world of increasing extremes, more than ever we seem to need the ability to look at things from multiple perspectives. Being immersed in a new culture in a new country and surrounded by new friends is a great way to acquire that skill. Having been able to do just that at ETH Zürich was a wonderful addition to my years at KU Leuven. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I look back on it with great fondness.

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An online summer school in times of corona

Jolien Van Opstal

JOLIEN VAN OPSTAL – My name is Jolien Van Opstal and I’m a medical student, I’m in my second Master’s year. I am not only interested in medicine itself, but also in the world that surrounds it, and in domains such as public an global health. I want to deepen my knowledge of these areas. That is why I decided to participate in the online summer school on Fundamentals of Global Health offered by Utrecht University and the Julius Center.

Together with some twenty other students from four different continents, I was exposed for a week to all possible aspects of global health, explained by experts from all corners of the world. The general aim of the course was to work with three other students on one main project. The other members in my team were a Dutch economics teachter, a GP from Tanzania and a humanitarian worker from Afghanistan.  Thanks to the different backgrounds of my team members, the project became a very informative and challenging process.

Nevertheless, the thing you have probably been wondering about since my first paragraph is: why take an online course when the whole semester programme is already online? To be honest: that actually gave me a sense of reassurance, because no matter what happened, the programme would continue anyway.  And despite the fact that making contacts was a lot harder and after-school activities just weren’t possible, surprisingly enough there were also some advantages. Just because the classes were online, students from all over the world could participate, including those who would otherwise not register as a result of high travel and accommidation costs. In an online class there is also more interaction than in an average class throughout the year. In that way, sessions become interesting opportunities for debate and learning. Finally, the total cost of an online summer school is lower than the cost of on-campus courses. In my case, the costs were even fully covered by the scholarship I received from the International Office. As a result, I learned a lot for a whole week without any extra expenses.

All this makes me look back on my week of immersion in the world of global health with fondness and inspiration. I encourage every motivated student who has the time next summer for a learning experience to take a look at the programme’s website.

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A traineeship that opens doors

Carolina Shahrestani

CAROLINA SHAHRESTANI – My name is Carolina Shahrestani and I have recently obtained my Master’s degree in International Politics from KU Leuven. Before starting a double degree programme in South Korea, I wanted to gain some relevant work experience. I decided to travel to Oslo to do a traineeship at the Belgian embassy.  

I opted for a voluntary traineeship because, somewhere in the following years, I would like to take the examination for diplomats and hopefully represent Belgium in the international arena. A traineeship at an embassy was therefore ideal. On the one hand, it gave me the opportunity to put the knowledge I had acquired during my studies into practice, whereas, on the other hand, I was given the chance to further develop my interest in the Nordic countries.

As a trainee, I was very closely involved in the embassy’s daily activities. It was my task to perform administrative duties, but I was also involved in writing political reports, attending online conferences, organising online events and closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation in Norway and Iceland. Right now, I am busy writing an in-depth report on the regional cooperation structures in the Arctic  and the role that Belgium could play in the High North.

During my adventure abroad, I have grown tremendously, both professionally and as a person. Professionally speaking, this traineeship has opened many doors for me. Not only have I gained a better understanding and knowledge of diplomacy, I have also recently been accepted by the Belgian embassies in Sweden and Canada to continue my traineeship there. Despite the fact that in the present circumstances it wasn’t possible to fully explore Norway, my fantastic colleagues made it possible for me to get a taste of Norwegian culture and develop a social life. The highlights of my stay were celebrating a typical Norwegian Christmas at one of my colleagues’ house, seeing the Northern Lights, and hiking the mountains by dogsled.

Since it was an unpaid traineeship and life in Norway doesn’t come cheap, I am grateful for the scholarship I received from KU Leuven, which helped me pay the rent for my single room in a shared flat. When you’re on a tight budget, living abroad isn’t always easy, but the unique character of your stay abroad makes the experience very worthwhile.

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