Edited by Neha Cherian
Design by Reshma
Studying at a well-connected, reputed and established college like IIT Madras allows you to benefit from strong partnerships with academic institutions worldwide. This – along with bragging rights among family and friends – is one of the perks of making it into a top IIT. An exchange (or study abroad) program lets you spend an entire semester at one of IITM’s partner universities. This article aims to introduce exchange programs to anyone looking to take their first steps towards an exciting adventure.
An exchange program is a semester spent at a university in another country for the purpose of exposing yourself to a different education system and a new and exciting way of life. Ideally, you do the same courses at the host university that you would’ve done at IITM during that semester and get the credits transferred when you return. Exchange programs are a great way to challenge yourself: the weather, food, language, currency, and more than anything, the social encounters can be very different from what you’re used to. Whether you are pursuing a new hobby, engaging in social life, or travelling, you get a break from the monotonous life you may have been living since the JEE days. Homesickness, loneliness and social anxiety are not uncommon feelings for an exchange student. However, in the end, all is good, and one learns how to deal with new situations with confidence.
Where do people go?
IITM has active partnerships with universities in Australia, Japan, Taiwan, France, Germany, Poland, Luxembourg, Spain, Czechia, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Portugal, and more! The most popular destinations are in Europe, probably due to the sheer number of options available there, but you shouldn’t hesitate to stray off the beaten path. In a way, that is the spirit of exchange programs.
Your choice of destination will also depend on your department and the availability of coursework at a host university. You need to determine which of your IITM courses you will do at your host university and determine which universities offer these courses in your chosen semester. This can be an arduous process involving scrolling through countless department websites at your universities of interest. Again, asking seniors from your department is a great way to know which options are most suitable for your curriculum.
How much will it cost?
A semester abroad can be expensive, but on balance, it is quite a good deal. Your expense is determined mainly by the cost of living (CoL) in the city you choose to go to. Websites like numbeo.com will help you estimate this for any city in the world. Generally, you will not have to pay tuition fees at the host university since the agreement with IITM covers it: you simply have to pay your IITM fees. A significant expense that CoL does not cover is travel. When you’re an exchange student, you can and must travel a lot! If you are prudent about picking your destinations and modes of travel, and if you can stay at hostels or sleep over at your friend’s place, you can make travel relatively affordable.
So finally, some concrete numbers: my exchange semester in Poland cost around ₹3 lakh in total, including accommodation, food, travel, recreation and winter clothes. A friend who went to Portugal reports having spent ₹4.5 lakh. Spending a semester in a higher CoL country like France or Germany will cost more. You can decide for yourself if it is worth it for you, but I haven’t met a single person who has regretted it.
While many students self-fund their exchange semester, there are several scholarship opportunities available. For example, this program at the Berlin Freie Universität offers funding through Erasmus+. Make sure you browse the list of programs on the IITM Global Engagement website thoroughly and inform yourself of all the fresh opportunities available each semester. Interacting with seniors from your department can be a great way to know which scholarships to look out for.
There’s also the IITM Alumni Travel Grant. Unlike scholarships, which are awarded through a competitive selection process, the Travel Grant can be availed by all IITM students who go abroad. It offers a maximum funding of ₹60000 and can be availed only once. You can safely factor this into your financial calculations before going, since you are almost guaranteed to receive this grant if you apply.
How do I begin?
Visit the IITM Global Engagement webpage on Semester Exchange. Browse the list of programs available, and figure out which programs are suitable for you. Once you have decided, approach the Contact Person listed on the webpage who will get you started with the paperwork. Contact seniors who have done this before to get personalised support. You should begin planning by the start of the semester prior to the semester when you plan to go.
When should I go?
You’re allowed to go on exchange during any semester after your first year. Each semester has its pros and cons, depending on your department and future plans. Going early (2nd or 3rd year) allows you to experience studying abroad during the early part of your personal growth trajectory in college (more about this later), but you will need to take up core/curriculum courses at your host university, which may restrict your choice of destination. Going late (4th or 5th year), on the other hand, will give you much more freedom since you can do any courses you want (you would’ve already finished your core courses), but it may interfere with your future plans (placements/higher studies). Therefore, you need to plan carefully to have a smooth exchange experience.
How does course mapping work?
You can transfer any course credits you complete at your host university to your IITM transcript after you return. If a course at the host university has >67% curriculum overlap with any core/compulsory course at IITM, it can be counted in place of the core course. If there isn’t sufficient overlap, then it will count towards your “unallotted” or “free” credit quota (Source: Email from Dean AC). The multiplier used to convert the host university credits to IITM credits varies case-by-case. For European credits, a commonly used conversion is 1ECTS = 2.25IITM
If you plan to pursue core/curriculum courses at the host university, you must prepare a document describing the courses you plan to take there and how their curricula overlap with corresponding courses at IITM – a course “mapping” – and get it approved by your HoD. This is often the most challenging step in getting your exchange semester off the ground, and is a determinant of your destination.
What if the semester periods don’t align?
Some countries have a semester schedule that doesn’t align with IITM’s Jan-May/Jul-Nov schedule. While this throws a spanner in the works of your exchange plans, IITM will allow you to return from exchange even after the next semester has begun, as long as you inform them in advance. In this case, it will be helpful to get a friend to log into your workflow to register for courses, or request remote access, as well as inform your profs to resolve attendance issues.
Overview of the paperwork
After course mapping, you will apply to the host university through IITM’s Global Engagement office. Once you get accepted by the host university, you will begin the visa application process (which varies depending on the country). Simultaneously, you will deregister from the hostel and inform the Academic Section of your absence in the forthcoming semester. Upon returning, you may have some W grades for the core courses that semester, but don’t worry; you can get those cleared easily. You will then re-register at the hostel and continue as a student here. Expect to visit the Academic Section at least 2361173 times during the whole process for various reasons.
Will the pandemic sabotage your semex plans?
It is unlikely that countries will impose strict restrictions anymore. You must go forth with your plans regardless. You cannot keep cancelling plans forever.
Tips from an exchange student
- Realise that this is a rare opportunity. Ask your friends studying in other colleges, and you will realise that very few places other than IITM will offer you the academic freedom and international partnerships necessary to facilitate such programs. Also, you will never again have the opportunity to live in a foreign country while being free from responsibilities such as having a job or getting good grades. Speaking of which…
- Go as early as possible. While you technically have the option to go abroad during any semester after your first year, you should go as early as you can. The benefits of going on exchange accrue compound interest. In my case, living abroad by myself at the age of 19 taught me to be self-sufficient, be more confident in social interactions, be more happy-go-lucky about various things, and opened my eyes to a fundamentally different way of life. I wouldn’t be headed where I am headed now if I hadn’t gone there as early as possible and allowed enough time for the lessons to soak in.
Besides, vodka is more fun when you’re 19.
- Don’t visit Paris. Or any famous tourist city (unless it is your host city). Remember that as an exchange student, you’re not a tourist: you’re a resident of your host city and an explorer of the region around it. Visiting small Polish towns where nobody speaks English taught me to carry myself well in situations outside my comfort zone. Visiting countries in Eastern Europe that I didn’t even know existed showed me a world outside of what is commonly portrayed in the media back home. Remember that you can and will visit Paris several times when you are older and have a job, but will you ever visit Gdańsk or Tallinn?
- Know what you’re missing out on in insti, and make plans for how to catch up when you return. Depending on when you go, you might miss PoR selection season, the internship drive, important courses or even placements. Besides, the opportunity cost of being away from your peers at IITM for a semester is not negligible. So plan ahead.
- Be careful with coursework shenanigans. Fun fact: The courses transferred from exchange don’t count towards your CGPA. So it can be tempting to study the bare minimum required to pass. I remember skipping the final exam for a course and going on a trip instead because I had already accumulated enough marks to pass during the mid-term exam. This attitude can burn you, though. I failed the exam for another course and had to make a beeline back to Warsaw from Berlin (where I was visiting) to write the make-up. Failing a course that you intended to map to a core course can result in a massive headache back in IITM. So pay attention.
That’s it! While this article tries to cover the most relevant aspects of exchange programs, there will surely be many unanswered questions. The best way to get personalised and specific advice for your department, year-of-study or destination is to contact a senior who has done something similar before. The Global Engagement team maintains a database of students who have previously gone on exchange programs, so contacting them is a great way to find relevant seniors. No matter your department, background or goals, there’s an adventure awaiting you!