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PORT TO PORT: From Rotterdam to Ningbo

I’ve noticed a lot of the past blog posts about the ‘University of Nottingham Ningbo’ (UNNC) appear to share something in common: people seem to be confused why one would undertake exchange in China. To be fair, when initially deciding on your exchange preferences, UTS will inform you that the UK, US and (to a lesser extent) Europe are the most popular choices.

I feel I can provide quite a unique perspective on the whole ‘popular destination’ vs. ‘off-the-beaten-track destination’ debate though, since I’ve literally just completed an exchange at ‘Erasmus University Rotterdam’ (EUR) in the Netherlands. In-between, I had two weeks at home. Most of this time was spent at UTS completing a Summer course, eating as much Sushi-Hub as I possibly could while I had the opportunity and running around Sydney applying for visas/booking flights etc. The gap between my exchanges was so brief that I missed all the orientation programs at UNNC and one whole month into my time in China, the ads on my YouTube and Facebook are still in Dutch. Essentially, I travelled from the largest port in Europe (Rotterdam), to the largest port in the world (Shanghai, an hour from Ningbo).

Despite being located on opposite edges of the world, there are a lot of similarities between my Universities in Ningbo and Rotterdam. The learning facilities at both Universities are comparable to UTS, with opening hours suitable for all those assignments you’ll inevitably leave to the last moment.  All my classes have been in English at both Universities, with tutors who teach in the same style as those at UTS. Both Universities require you to attend a relatively similar number of tutorials and lectures as UTS, depending on your degree. The topics I’m studying are mostly the same as they’d be back home. Don’t get me started on organising a timetable at an overseas university; seems to be an absolute headache regardless of where you undertake your exchange.

However, in terms of differences, I feel like you probably already have a general idea of what you’re getting yourself into when choosing between two locations like the Netherlands (and Europe) and China. The whole “population of China is 80x that of the Netherlands”/ ”the entire rental period of my accommodation in China cost the same as one month of rent in the Netherlands”/ “ I should probably (definitely) get a VPN”  thing.

So instead, I’ll try and focus on some differences that you can’t just Wikipedia.

Travelling in Ningbo Vs. Rotterdam

First, most important thing to consider: unless you can speak the local language, it’s far easier to travel in Rotterdam and Europe than Ningbo and China. To be honest, one month into my exchange I wouldn’t even know what Ningbo really looks like.

Apart from a recent hiking and camping trip in the mountains to the west of Ningbo with the University Climbing Association (I’ve attached the pictures), I’ve not really explored the city and China too extensively yet. Apart from the language barrier, that might be partly because I’m a little worn out after my exchange in the Netherlands; or because I’m just settling into the infrastructure of a new city and country; or (most probably) because after a semester in Europe, every time I open my wallet it does that thing the book Harry Potter opens in the restricted section does (very niche reference, Google it). However, I feel it’s mostly that UNNC is just a very cohesive campus that doesn’t require you to stray too far away, but rather encourages you to hang around and get involved.

Almost every student lives on campus at UNNC. Every business and service you’d need is here including banks, supermarkets, a (free for students) gym and four separate canteens. There are beautiful lawns and a lake that dominates the campus landscape, along with regular movie screenings and sports clubs to join. UNNC doesn’t possess any architecture of the superb quality of the UTS Tower Building, but I can forgive that. While the campus of EUR was similar in a sense, I found it to be far less of a community than UNNC.

In Europe I was very motivated to get out of Rotterdam on the weekends via bus to see sites like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or to enjoy a few steins at Oktoberfest in Munich. Meanwhile, I’ve found it’s very comfortable to just spend time close to campus in Ningbo. Also, if you make friends in those first few weeks, you’ll have a big crew to organise trips with down the line. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely keen to travel (I’m currently planning trips to Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu) and to properly immerse myself within Chinese culture. However, I think in China it’s best to become comfortable first before really hitting the road. Like everyone who spends a semester abroad, I do absolutely recommend travelling as extensively as possible while on exchange. Some of my best memories from the past semester in Europe where spent in locations I never expected I’d visit.

Negotiating the infrastructure and the amount of English spoken in China is far more difficult than in the Netherlands and Europe. As such, it’s important to emphasise that you’ll definitely want to make sure you have some friends (along with ‘Google Translate’) on board. In my all European travels to locations like Portugal, Slovenia or the UK, I never experienced a challenge like getting to Ningbo from Shanghai after my flight into China. It went about as well you’d imagine, considering I was alone, with no WIFI, never having been in China before, all while very sleep-deprived. Ultimately, a journey of roughly 200km required a bus, a bullet train and a taxi, and took me a whole day to complete. If you do come to Ningbo, definitely don’t be disorganised like me: either book a (more expensive) flight directly into Ningbo or make sure you organise a Shanghai airport transfer via UNNC.

Students and Language in Ningbo Vs. Rotterdam

UNNC is a campus of the University of Nottingham in the UK, so every class is in English using the same curriculum as the UK campus. Therefore, all the local students are fluent in English and the language barrier isn’t as prominent as you might imagine it’d be. It’s quite easy to make local friends if you’re willing to socialise and put yourself out there. This is much the same as the Netherlands. Despite Dutch obviously being the first language of the campus, I don’t think I ever felt isolated or troubled by my inability to speak it at EUR.

However, in comparison to EUR, most of the businesses on campus at UNNC are run by workers who speak minimal English. This can make for a challenge, like when you’re trying to set-up your WIFI, open a bank account or (more of a laugh than anything) attempting to take a yoga class. I actually enjoy this aspect of the UNNC campus though, as it provides you with another avenue to make friends with local students who can help you out. You can also rely on other exchange students and struggle through your Yoga classes together.

Of the exchange students at both of the Universities, I’ve found so far that there were a lot more exchangers at EUR than UNNC. For example, in Rotterdam I had a large group of friends solely from Universities in Sydney. By some strange stroke of chance, I was even placed in a three-person dorm with another student from my core degree at UTS.

Meanwhile, at UNNC, I am one of only two Australians. While the diversity of nationalities is similar to EUR, because there are less exchangers, I feel the entire exchange cohort is a lot tighter at UNNC compared to EUR.

Student Housing in Ningbo Vs. Rotterdam

Quite a substantial difference. In all honesty, the student housing at UNNC makes the residences at EUR look like a boutique hotel. This is probably more of a reflection of how great my accommodation in Rotterdam was, rather than of how average the student accommodation in Ningbo is.

I won’t go too far into detail, because the quality of accommodation shouldn’t really affect your exchange experience, but I never felt compelled to wear thongs in the shower at Rotterdam (also, call thongs “flip-flops” while on exchange or just anywhere that isn’t Australia. Thank me later).

Now that I think about it, this comparison is pretty pointless, because student accommodation varies at every University in Europe. However, there are a few things I think it’s significant to note about Ningbo student housing. Firstly, in the student accommodation at Ningbo (or at least in Building 20 where I live) the bathroom sinks and kitchen are in the same room. By “bathroom” I really just mean two sinks and a mirror; by “the kitchen” I really just mean one hot plate and a kettle. No one really uses it, except for when packet noodles and tea/coffee are necessary. Instead, everyone usually meets in one of the canteens for meals. It’s a really communal, enjoyable and affordable way of eating and definitely one of my favourite aspects of campus. The canteen food is absolutely unreal if you find the right places. I’ll leave that up to you.

Also, there’s the option to choose a one-person room in Building 11, or a four-person dorm room in Building 20 or 18 for a lot less. Definitely go the dorm. I know it’s more comfortable to live alone, but you’ll make friends more easily in a shared dorm. Just try not to get Room number 4 in your dorm. It shares a (very thin) wall with the toilet, so you’ll know if anyone needs to use it during the night.

Finally, the best thing about student accommodation at UNNC is that it’s guaranteed if you’re an exchange student. This takes away the stress of deadlines and the fear of missing out (like many of my friends in Rotterdam did at EUR). Much appreciated.

BONUS QUESTION: undertaking two separate, consecutive exchanges Vs. just a single exchange

Plenty of people don’t actually know it’s possible to do two exchanges back-to-back in different locations; people seem surprised when I tell them. For many degrees, it isn’t really an option due to study requirements. It requires a lot of planning and organisation, both by yourself and by the UTS exchange office (bless them). I organised my entire Chinese exchange via online correspondence while in the Netherlands.

It’s easy to say “yeah, definitely do two exchanges in completely random locations if you’re able to, what a good time haha lol”. However, I wouldn’t really agree with myself if I were to pretend it was that simple, despite the fact that I certainly thought it would be when I initially made the decision.

I’ve found that at times my experience in the Netherlands was sort-of muted, or felt less important, because I knew I had another whole semester to go at a different University. When a lot my friends were getting emotional at the end of our time on exchange in the Netherlands, I instinctively found myself thinking “this isn’t it for me, I’ve got another whole semester abroad to go”. At the time, rather than feeling like one cohesive experience (like it was for all of my friends), my time in the Netherlands felt like one half of a larger journey. Looking back now, it was definitely an experience in itself, but at the time I definitely remember feeling a bit strange.

Now that I’m in China, it doesn’t really feel like the “second half of the experience” I anticipated it to be. It sometimes feels like a sort of bizarre detour after my “real” exchange has been completed. It certainly feels different to how I imagine spending one whole year at a single location would. Truthfully, it’s hard to properly evaluate these things until after they’re complete.

I understand that many people go overseas for years at a time and it doesn’t seem to bother them. I also understand that this might make me seem slightly ungrateful for the opportunity (promise I’m not). All I’m saying is that the bureaucracy and organisation and time away from home going on exchange twice consecutively requires is quite exhausting. The fact that you’re spending your time on exchange in two distinct locations, with two groups of people, without really any time to return home in-between will definitely shape how you conceptualise and view the experience as a whole.

It’s rewarding, exciting and a great way to experience different cultures, countries and learning styles. However, it’s important to understand that there are challenges. Ultimately, while I am personally very glad that I made it to China after the Netherlands, if you do decide to undertake two separate, consecutive exchanges, I’d recommend you give it a good think first.

If you have any questions about UNNC, feel free to shoot me an email at Jed.R.Nielsen@student.uts.edu.au / hit me up on Instagram @jednielsen

Jed Nielsen
Bachelor of Communication / Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation
University of Nottingham Ningbo

China

Australian Government New Colombo Plan Mobility Grant recipient.

For more information about the UTS Global Exchange program please visit: www.global-exchange.uts.edu.au

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