Before 25-year-old Deni Isic and 27-year-old Jonathan Leuba could call themselves entrepreneurs, they were just two students who wanted to study for a semester in their dream destinations: Deni Isic wanted to go to California and Jonathan Leuba wanted to go to the Portuguese Azores island. But it would turn out to be more complicated than that.
Both universities, to which the two students wanted to travel, had no exchange agreement with Aarhus University. It was therefore instead a question of a studying abroad, where responsibility for all planning and formalities rested solely with themselves. That is being a so-called freemover. Both Deni Isic and Jonathan Leuba were very much alone with what they experienced as a very complicated process. They both also missed some important deadlines in the planning process because there was no capacity to help them in the international office:
"I just ended up saying: Fair enough, then I have to find some alternatives. So I sought out an agency which, despite the missed deadlines, was able to help med abroad," says Deni Isic.
Jonathan Leuba takes over and explains that Deni Isic calls him one day and tells him that he has found out that by applying for a scholarship abroad, you can get a grant to cover all study-related expenses for your stay. Jonathan Leuba had planned his entire stay himself from the start and had not really had very high expenses, but when he hesitated, Deni Isic said on the other end of the line:
“Okay, I'll do it for you. Send me your receipts!”
Through the study abroad scholarship, students can have their study expenses covered when they are going on a credit-bearing stay abroad for studies. The scheme is for students who do not travel via their home university's exchange agreements.
Deni Isic didn't stop at helping himself and his friend. Before leaving, several fellow students had approached him and asked for help to apply for a study abroad semester as a freemover. He therefore decided to immerse himself in all aspects of the freemover concept:
“I told them all that no one was allowed to leave the classroom until they had applied, and everyone ended up applying and essentially got successfully admitted to their respective destinations. Then Jonathan looks at me afterwards and says: Deni, you were actually very good at that. You should work with that.”
And it was precisely there in 2018 that the fledgling idea for the company Uniclub - Study Abroad arose, which today, almost five years later, has collaborations with over 70 universities both within and outside the EU. This also makes them the agency in the Nordics with the largest portfolio of university partners.
The company Uniclub - Study Abroad, is an independent company that does not collaborate with Aarhus University. But according to the two entrepreneurs, it would be more beneficial if they could instead cooperate to a greater extent with Aarhus University and other public universities to help the students who are forced to apply as Freemovers instead of exchange students:
"It is a shame if the student lets his or hers dream of studying abroad fall to the ground because their home university does not have a collaboration with the university he or she wants to study at. The university should instead say: We cannot help you with this university, but you have such and such options instead. We do not experience that happening. Our customers often find us by panicking on Google: "I have been denied my exchange application, what should I do?" It could have been avoided," says Deni Isic.
The two entrepreneurs want their help and guidance to be free for the students. They have succeeded in this by getting the universities they collaborate with to compensate them for the work Uniclub does. Therefore, Deni Isic and Jonathan Leuba also understand well if they are perceived by public universities as a form of competitor, because that compensation they receive could have been income that Danish universities such as Aarhus University would have received if they were the ones who facilitated the exchange.
But according to Rikke Nielsen, who is the international head of the international center at Aarhus University, it is about the fact that Uniclub is one of several external players who offer students advice in connection with stays abroad. The university does not have the opportunity to ensure the quality of the external companies and their partners:
"In principle, it is up to the individual student to choose between the providers. We cannot recommend specific providers. It is not our task and we must not single out individual players on the market, because if we do, we are singling someone out compared to others," says Rikke Nielsen.
On the other hand, Rikke Nielsen and her colleagues have taken note that from Aarhus University's side, more information should be available to students regarding the possibilities of a stay abroad financed by governmental scholarships. The aim is for the students to be fully informed about funding options via the generous financing options when and if they wish to study abroad as a freemover stay via commercial providers such as Uniclub:
"I think it's great that there are companies like Uniclub that can lift the workload for the student, which they would otherwise have to deal with by themselves by having to arrange their study abroad semester. We are certainly not critical of the freemover concept, which is a good supplement to the opportunities students have via the many exchange agreements the university has entered into with partners around the world," says Rikke Nielsen.
In addition to running their growing company, Uniclub, both Deni Isic and Jonathan Leuba finishing their masters degree in Technology-based Business Development on their final semester:
“There is not much free time. We haven't watched television for years, I think,” laughs Jonathan Leuba.
But the balance between study and business is clear for both of them. From day one, they have had the company as their first priority, and that is also where they put most of their energy, they say.
"It is the company we are passionate about. Then we would rather go to a re-examination once in a while, to make things fit together," says Deni Isic.
At present, Uniclub has the capacity to advise 120 students a year, but the ambition is in the long term to be able to help up to 200-300 students to go on their dream stay as freemovers per semester. The two co-founders of the company also feel that there are students out there who need their help:
"When it's sometimes a dark and rainy day, it just gives the best feeling to be able to look at your Trustpilot reviews and see that you've helped some students who probably otherwise wouldn't have succeeded in going," says Jonathan Leuba.
In addition to the personal benefit of helping other students on their way, according to them, it has also benefited their progress at university. Their best advice to other students who dream of starting a business is therefore to also think of their business as part of the education itself:
"It's a huge advantage because you have so much data and so much real experience that you can use for your university project," says Deni Isic.
"Yes, for us it has been absolutely fantastic. Being able to use our business case for our studies has made it feel more like a real job than just studies, and at the same time we still get some ECTS points for it," says Jonathan Leuba.
We sincerely thank the independent newspaper at Aarhus University, Omnibus, for their visit at our office. The article is featured on their website here.