Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Erasmus: An Insider's Guide

Me musing at the beach, Spain

For those of you who don’t know what Erasmus is, the basic concept is this: it is a European University exchange programme that provides funding for ‘mobility students’, aka students on the move. And this year, I’ve been one of them.

When I first announced that I was embarking on this big adventure, I mused that I might start a sort of diary to give the real insider-scoop on my experiences. That, however, didn’t come to fruition and there’s one big reason why: Erasmus engulfs you, fully and totally, and flailing around trying to keep together all the fragments of your old life (read: boyfriend, blog, friendships) will be a tough enough test on its own without the addition of recording your every move. True story.

That said, the month of January has so far proved to be a (welcomed) quiet one, and so I have time to review my experience at the halfway mark, and give you some insight if you’re considering Erasmus yourself.

Who? What? Why?

For a less personal version of what exactly Erasmus entails, you can visit their UK website here. If you’re not British, ask around at your home university for the right person to talk to.

Erasmus Accommodation

Your accommodation options and experiences will, of course, change depending on your destination. I can only guide you from the point of view of relocating to a medium-sized western-European city, but I hope this will apply to a lot of you.

It is more than likely that the university you’re visiting will provide some kind of accommodation, and this can be extremely tempting for its ease and sense of security. However, you should be very aware that this is not always the best option financially, nor does it provide the unique challenge of setting yourself up independently. I know that if I had opted for university accommodation, not only would I have been deeply uninspired by my surroundings (I ended up spending my first few nights in the university halls as an alternative to a hostel), but I would have also been paying around three times as much as I am now. That’s not an exaggeration.

Need to Know: It will probably be difficult to arrange private accommodation before arriving at your Erasmus destination, but don’t let this perturb you as the landlords/ladies of any Erasmus university town will likely be well-versed in the requirements of Erasmus students, and your university will probably provide a database of options. Try to buddy-up with a few potential housemates in advance, either coming with you from your home university or Erasmus students from further afield, whom you can probably be put in touch with via your coordinator or Facebook.

Erasmus Funding

I won’t lie to you; the financial benefit of the Erasmus Exchange Programme was one of the major pulls for me to take part. As a UK student, if you do a full year’s placement, not only are your university fees for that year waived (were talking over £3,500), you also receive a monthly allowance to assist with the extra costs of studying abroad. Seriously, unless you are incredibly lucky and/or savvy, when is anyone, ever again, going to PAY you to go and live in another country? Precisely.

Need to Know: For the 2010/11 academic year my Erasmus grant has been €225 per month (be aware that this figure varies across Europe, and from year to year). However, don’t be seduced by the grant or naive about costs, and allow for big expenditure in your first month abroad as you set yourself up. With my rental deposit etc., I somehow managed to spend well over €1000 in my first month in Spain.

Erasmus Travel

I love travel, and I do it a lot. For that reason Erasmus seemed perfect for me, and this is one of the key facets of the whole experience that has truly exceeded my expectations. In the few months I have spent in Spain so far I’ve visited Barcelona twice, camped on the beach at Delta Del Ebre, hiked in the mountains, moseyed around monasteries, Christmas shopped in Madrid, and hopped across to Africa. What’s more, I only predict more of the same in the Spring semester, with visits to Valencia, Sevilla and even Portugal, on the cards.

Need to Know: Leave space in your budget (and timetable) for travel, even if this only comes in the form of day-trips. Don’t waste the opportunity of a whole new European base to explore the many corners of the continent from.

Making Friends on Erasmus

I’ve written before on The Art of Making New Friends and, unsurprisingly, those tips all apply here. As a UK student, I’m used to a certain amount of reservation, both in myself and others, alleviated only after months of friendship or copious consumption of alcohol! (Terrible – I know – but true.) With other students of the EU, this is quite different. Whilst the alcohol is still a major player, there is much less reservation in general. I can’t express my joy and surprise when, at one of the first organised Erasmus events, I was approached by a string of students, thrusting out there hands for a handshake and confidently introducing themselves. For many of you, this will seem totally normal, but in Britain, unfortunately, that’s rarely how things are done. This has made making friends a hundred times less intimidating, and encouraged me to be far more confident in the way I approach people.

One unfortunate truth is that you will likely notice a clear divide between native students of your placement university, and Erasmus students. It’s easy to make friends with other Erasmus students as there will be a plethora of events on offer at which you’ll see the same faces again and again. Native students, however, apart from a rare and wonderful few (often those who have experienced Erasmus themselves) will largely appear more serious, and less inclined to start up a chat with you. If you’re determined to make local friends, be prepared to be speaking the language and making a great deal of conscious effort.

Need to Know: The social side is a huge part of Erasmus; you’ll likely make friends for life and improve your social skills tremendously. Don’t be disheartened if making local friends is a little trickier, just be a friendly face and make as much effort as possible with the language.

Erasmus Studying & Grading

Unfortunately, there is a reason that this aspect of Erasmus arrives low on my list. If you undertake Erasmus there is so much more to it than simply the academic challenge; there will likely be the challenge of a new language, of meeting hundreds of new people all in one go, of setting yourself up independently in a whole new place etc.

In terms of grading, again I have to point out that this is my personal experience as a UK student, and I know there are big variations. My grades have been given under the ECTS system and, as I am studying abroad for a full academic year rather than just one semester, the year is contributing towards my degree on a pass/fail basis. This means the grade I receive for my degree overall will be based only on my second year grade – which is great for me as I totally exceeded my own expectations last year. This may seem like “cheating” or a sort of loophole, but for me it means I am rewarded for my hard work whilst still maintaining, both a pure interest in my subject (rather than regimented pressure), and my sanity in my final year. In some cases I know that doing Erasmus may mean you’ll need to repeat a year at your home university, it’s best to find your Erasmus coordinator and have a chat.

Need to Know: Whilst you may not be traditionally challenged in the academic sense, you will gain so much more. Be prepared to lay aside elitism and get back in touch with your natural and independent love for your subject. Let the idea of “just passing” be okay with you, knowing that you’re gaining so many more life skills from the experience.

Making the Transition: The Emotional Side of Erasmus

We often talk of ‘change’ as though it is a conscious decision; as if we have the choice to sit up and say ‘okay, I’m ready to change now’. The truth is, however, that change is often something that merely happens to us – sometimes we have very little say in the matter and can only ride the wave of consequence. This concept pretty much sums up my experience of Erasmus so far.

Though I knew moving to a new country, a new university, and a whole new social circle would entail a great deal of change – it was not these conscious, expected changes that were the real challenge. There was a deeper change that went on; one it’s difficult to even put my finger on; one that whipped every element of my existence up into frenzy in many positive and negative forms. My health, both emotional and physical, has suffered as a result.

I don’t intend this to put you off. Though Erasmus has been one of the hardest experiences of my life, it has also been one of the best; challenge and reward generally manifest themselves hand-in-hand in this way. The best way I can describe it is just like normal life, only concentrated, magnified, or on fast-forward. Every moment brings more and more that you have to deal with, and adding this to trying to keep things ticking over back at home makes for one big mixing-bowl of mayhem.

Need to Know: Emotionally, Erasmus will take you on that proverbial rollercoaster, but it will be one of the best rides of your life. Be sure that you have strong relationships at home to keep you grounded, the ability to assert your own personality and needs in new situations, and are capable of listening and responding to those needs. Making time for yourself is essential, in the form of quiet journaling or taking walks.

Have you experienced Erasmus? Where did you go and what were the highlights? Any advice? And for those thinking of taking the plunge – any questions? I understand it’s a big scary step, so don’t be afraid to voice your fears!


selina said...

great post! it's a shame that like all experiences of say a gig or a holiday, once they're over, they're over! but erasmus really changes you and you have non-stop amazing experiences, especially as you go home and do the year you missed to do erasmus instead, anyway! i'm so pleased i was a student for another year and it helped me start my final year with a fresh and more mature outlook, and also an experience of lecture and teaching styles that other final year students have not had. i wouldn't even know where to start as there were so many happenings, but i am certainly always at the club nights for erasmus students at my uni here this year, and luckily both my housemates did erasmus too! i just got a christmas card from taiwan from a girl i met in sweden too, a girl who i would have never met before!xxx

Giorgia Student-Flair Blog said...

I've been on the Leonardo da Vinci EEC program, it's working experience instead of studying, and I loved every minute of it. They fund you to live abroad and sometimes even find you a job. All these kind of opportunities are rare and exceptional, so if one has a chance to it, one must take advantage of it absolutely! I also agree about Britain's social habits, when I lived there (I'm italian) it really was difficult to get in touch with locals and I had to drink several beers to finally find some local friends! I hope in september to move to London and get my MA degree, so I'll def follow your advice ;-)

Euforilla said...

I went on Erasmus!
I loved every bit of it, I went to Montpellier, France.
And now I'm planning a "Post-Erasmus syndrome recovery how to" for my blog.

Juliette said...

"I can’t express my joy and surprise when, at one of the first organised Erasmus events, I was approached by a string of students, thrusting out there hands for a handshake and confidently introducing themselves."

I was really surprised by this sentence. I'm french so it's natural for me to greet people I have never seen before with a kiss on both cheeks. When I moved to the UK I changed to shaking hands when meeting people, which was what I thought was a more tame version. What do you do then in the UK if you don't even shake hands when meeting people ??
The shaking hands thing is more an international thing than south europe thing though.

On the subject of Erasmus itself: there's a few reasons why the "native students" don't mix that much with Erasmus students. As an undergraduate, I'm looking towards the future, thinking about who I'll share accommodation with next year for example. While I've spent time with french Erasmus people who've introduced me to their group, being with them means less time for other people.
Furthermore, I've made very good friends with one particular french Erasmus student, but I know that if he wasn't french I wouldn't speak that much to him: most Erasmus students have very strong accents, and for "native students" it's pretty hard to have a real conversation with Erasmus people because of their accent and lack of vocabulary.

I'd be interested to know what you think of the film Potluck/ L'auberge espagnole, especially since you are doing your Erasmus year in Spain.

Megan said...

Juliette - I wasn't surprised by the handshaking itself, rather the confidence of them introducing themselves without being introduced by another person. British people can often be quite reserved or shy and wait to be introduced by someone else. Shaking hands is normal, don't worry!

I saw the film recently and thought it was a great depiction of Erasmus!

Juliette said...

Thanks for your reply. I'll keep in mind what you say about British people, I now understand some people's attitude a bit more.

Great article btw :)

Lape said...

Hi Megan. I think your being on Erasmus was a great opportunity. I only discovered your blog recently but I really like it especially your travel pieces. I love to travel too and write about travel on my blog. I want to travel more but deep down, I feel a little too old (let's just say I left uni many years ago ;-) )to just take off and spend 3 months somewhere in Europe like I would love to. That is my dream though and maybe I will do it someday. Soon, I hope. I like the honesty in your writing. Keep doing what you love because you inspire other people :-)

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