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California Dreaming – Being an Exchange Student

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One girl’s story of being an exchange student in Santa Barbara, California, and how you too can experience the magic. Get out there and be exposed to new cultures, teachers and ways of thinking. You won’t regret it.

Even before I started at UCT, I knew that I was going to try and go on exchange. My mum heard about it through a friend and got me excited. I would never have guessed the impact it would have on me.
Applying was an emotional process. Planning to leave my then-boyfriend for a semester in the hope that it would be a good experience seemed to go completely against instinct, and I went through months of pain before I left. The unknown is always scary, and facing it brings out the best in us.

My friend Emma had gone to the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California and her description of it made me want to go there badly. Unfortunately they didn’t have the courses I needed, so I was placed at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). From a bit of Googling, I found out that I was headed for a university with beauty rivalling UCT’s, and a reputation for being one of the top “party schools” of the US. It was exciting and intimidating! After I saw that UCSB is located right on the beach, it wasn’t hard for me to take the leap.

As I have far too much to say about my exchange, here it is broken down under topics that potential exchange students might find useful:

Making it happen

I applied through UCT’s exchange office, IAPO. They helped me with paperwork and made sure I knew what I had to do. The most complicated thing was finding potential universities that offered similar courses to the ones I’d be missing, so that I could get credit for them. Once I’d found these, I required approval from my course convenors and HOD. Then all I needed was a student visa and a plane ticket!


Money management was stressful because the dollar-rand exchange rate did NOT work in my favour, making everything I bought seem ridiculously expensive. It was also difficult to budget without any idea of how much I would have to spend. IAPO provides exchange students with funds for accommodation, food and one way plane ticket. This proved to be just enough.

Rent was the most expensive thing as it cost $600/month to share a room with two other people in a house of ten people. Apart from that, I spent the most money on a bed, a bicycle, transport, textbooks and food. I saved money by ride-sharing (you can sign up online), Couchsurfing, cooking instead of eating out (counter to the culture I was living in!), shopping in bulk at the cheapest places and generally living frugally. It ended up working out well, probably helped by the fact that I am someone who hates spending money!

In my opinion, the key is to realise what is truly worth spending money on. I tried to spend as little as possible on food and “things” so that on weekends I would be able to go on camping road trips and go to concerts we’d never get in SA. Spend money on memory-making experiences, not stuff.

Finding accommodation

Some universities place exchange students in catered residences. UCSB did not, and finding accommodation was not easy. Along with Californian property prices being among the highest in the USA,  Isla Vista, the area next to UCSB where most of the students live, is defined on Wikipedia as one of the most population-dense “student ghettos” (23 000 student live in 4.8km2), so competition for cheap housing is high.

I joined a Facebook group for UCSB students letting their rooms and ended up subleasing for a girl who was going on her own exchange to Australia. Sharing rooms is the norm here and I lived in a three-bedroom flat of ten girls. While a residence may have made things easier, I got a more real, up-close and personal experience of Californian life.


Figuring out a new university’s class system online had a sharp learning curve, but once I arrived at UCSB I found that I adapted quickly. The courses I ended up doing were amazing! For example, my Invertebrate Zoology lecturer was one of the most inspiring professors I’ve ever met. He completely renewed my interest in Marine Biology, and for that I am eternally grateful. That class took us on a weekend field trip and the well organised lab class exposed me to many organisms that I had never seen before – it was a privilege to be in it. Another class taught me to recognise hundreds of local species, bringing Californian nature alive.

Lectures had a much faster pace than at UCT, plus I found that Americans talk more rapidly than us, enabling them to fit even more into a lecture! My courses did take up a lot of my time, which made me jealous of the other exchange students most of whom had few classes! Then again, because it was all new, I didn’t really mind. Sitting in the library and watching the sun set over the ocean made studying worth it. I wish I had been able to take twenty courses – UCSB offered some really interesting ones!

Culture & Culture Shock

Adapting to the UCSB lifestyle was not hard. The students behave like every day is a weekend and there is always someone up for a quick swim at the beach (which is right there!). It seems the constant exposure to the ocean keeps students smiling.

Cultural differences are there but are not easy to describe. At first, my fellow exchange student Kristin (from EduConnect!) and I both found that we were often the only people in a group NOT laughing at an apparent joke. Slowly and subconsciously we started to “get” American humour.
For me, the food culture was the most difficult to get used to. I had to learn to not look for my usual South African ingredients in the shops, but to learn to cook with what there was. For me, food is comforting, especially when far from home, so there was many a time that I craved a South African home meal.


  • Get a bike! Cycling is the main mode of transport around UCSB, making whizzing to class a fun time. Plus, the buses have bike racks!
  • Joining the Excursion Club is a must! They organise surfing, skateboarding, climbing, snorkelling, SUPing and camping trips and lessons, and can lend you gear to do all of that and more independently. It’s an easy way to meet adventurous people.
  • Say “Yes” to everything!

Before I decided to go on exchange to California, the USA was very low on my go-to list. However, I knew that if I was to travel there I would go to California as it is one of the more liberal states. As someone who tries to eat and live healthily and ethically, the country famous for McDonalds and war did not sound appealing. I was, to say the least, pleasantly surprised! All the stereotypes in my head and even my dislike of American accents disappeared on touchdown in Los Angeles. I now know how wrong I was. As much as the stereotypes exist for a reason, the US is a big country with a lot to offer in the way of culture, nature and learning opportunities, and I would go back in a shot if I could.

My exchange proved to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I learned how to balance work and play for the first time. I met people from all over the world, who I can’t wait to one day visit. I experienced gratitude more strongly and more often than ever. I learned to love my boyfriend from a distance. I was happier than I had been in months. I made plans to do things that seemed impossible, and did them. I got lost and then rescued myself. I went camping in snow. I drove on the wrong side of the road. I survived living with 9 other people. I grew.

[su_spoiler title=”Requirements to Go on Exchange through IAPO” style=”sharp” icon=”chevron”]To be considered academically eligible to apply for an exchange, students should be maintaining an average of 68% or above – See full requirements here.

Application deadlines

  • Deadline for UCT first semester: May 15th of the previous year
  • Deadline for UCT second semester: October 15th of the previous year[/su_spoiler]


EduConnect 2cents

Going on exchange is an incredible experience if you want to experience new cultures, meet interesting people from different backgrounds and just jump out of your comfort zone. Studying abroad also allows you to get a feel for other institutions. What’s stopping you? Just do it!

“The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.” – Sir Richard Burton

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