Everyone has heard of the Erasmus programme, however not many people know about the changes that took place a year ago as a result of the 40% increase in the budget allocated by the EU.
By Enora Davodeau, Clément Labeca and Thomas Vedovelli
In 2014, the European student exchange program was modified to allow more students to experience academic life in other countries. Erasmus + is therefore a revised version of the old system, designed to encourage mobility. First of all, students are not limited to one exchange for studies and one for an internship anymore. With the new Erasmus, they are granted twelve months per cycle, allowing someone for instance to leave for one semester in second year to study, one in third as an intern, and again during their master’s degree. And there is more, a lack of money is often the main reason students give for not going on an Erasmus exchange, so the scholarship which used to be the same for everyone is now allocated according to the destination and its living cost. Cities are therefore separated into 3 categories, and the amount received can vary from 150€ to 300€ per month. When this amount is added to the regional grants you can apply for, studying abroad becomes much more accessible. At last, a website to assist students in testing and improving their language skills was also created.
We are three masters’ students who went on an Erasmus + exchange during the year 2014-2015 and we wanted to share our experiences in three different cities: Enora in Glasgow, Clement in Bucharest and Thomas in Bristol. First of all we want to tell you about the preparation, everything that happens before you finally set foot in your new university. From paperwork to house hunting, it is not always easy to prepare for a year abroad, and you have be ready for a bit of a struggle at times.
Thomas: Since the movie Pot Luck (‘L’auberge espagnole’), Erasmus has had a bad reputation concerning paperwork. While it is true that there are a few steps to follow before you leave, the procedure is fairly simple. It might depend on which country or university you go to, but as far as I was concerned, things went rather well and there were always people to answer my questions. The website of the University of Bristol was also very clear and I found my classes very quickly. The only thing that was stressful was searching for a share house. Unlike Clement or Enora, I was in Bristol for only one semester, and it proved to be a lot harder to find a place for a medium term stay. The university dorms were reserved for Bristol University students, and although you can apply for leftover rooms, there aren’t usually any. This year even local students had to bunk up with strangers in tiny single rooms. Private landlords also prefer renting on a 12 month lease, so the only real option is to find friendly home owners with a spare room to rent. It is also recommended to arrive a month or so before the start of the term, I myself arrived a week earlier and had a really hard time trying to find a place. A lot of the Erasmus students I met in class spent months in backpackers sharing a room with 6 or 7 people. So even if it means paying an extra month rent, it will make things a lot easier to look a month in advance.
Enora: Just like Thomas, when I got in Glasgow two weeks before the semester began, I had a hard time finding decent accommodation. We were many Erasmus students looking for a place to stay either for one or two semesters. Glasgow is a big city, but the problem was that everybody wanted to live in the same place: the West End. As it is a really nice area of Glasgow, a great number of students live there and contribute to make the West End a nice, vibrant place to stay. But there were too many people looking for exactly the same thing! I ended up finding a temporary place to stay before moving in with three Scottish people, but I had to wait over two months to get there. However, renting a flat is quite easy in the UK: if the flat is ran by a private landlord, very often you don’t even have to sign any official papers! I would also advise, as Thomas did, to come a few weeks before classes begin. It will be less stressful, and there will be less competition as well. And if you are lucky enough to find a nice flat in just a few days, you will have some time to discover the city before starting the semester.
Clement: The preparation of my exchange was different from Enora’s and Thoma’s. At first I chose to stay at the campus, but after having heard of the conditions of living (campus located 45min from the University, 2 people in a room of only 9 square meters with shared bathroom, kitchen and Internet connection) I decided to look for something else. In July I found a flat on the Internet, rented by a French landlord. Having no other choice, I rented the flat for a year, which meant that I had to find an internship in Bucharest. I signed and visited the apartment in September before moving for good towards the end of the same month. Unlike my two colleagues, I settled the things quite early , which spared me some stress but on the other hand, knowing the city better I could have found something cheaper. But it allowed me to arrive in Bucharest two weeks before the beginning of the classes, which I thought was enough to settle into the program. I was wrong. If in Bristol Thomas could find his program quite easily, it took me a lot of time. First of all, the website of the university is barely translated into English, which gives a brutal and stressful introduction to Romanian language. Despite dozens of e-mails, meetings at the university and hours spent translating things, the day of the beginning of the classes came and I was still unable to go to a class. Eventually, an e-mail from the Erasmus secretary read “don’t worry, as Erasmus students, you can start your classes in two weeks”. I would soon understand that the sentence “don’t worry you have time”, if not the motto, was at least the guideline of my faculty.
The second problem that you might encounter when arriving in a new city is finding new friends. A recent article in Le Monde shows some people who had a hard time blending in, and it is true that it is not always easy to be accepted with local students. While you can rely on associations like the ESN (Erasmus Student Network) composed of volunteers who will help you adapt to your new environment, there might also be local sports teams or other clubs you can join to find people who share the same tastes and interests.
Enora: Getting to know people is not hard at all- you just have to want it. I don’t know what it’s like in other cities, but in Glasgow everybody is really nice with everyone. There will always be someone to come and help you if you’re lost in the city. I would say it is not always that easy to mingle with the local Scottish crowd, but as an Erasmus student, you can always meet new people everywhere. As far as I’m concerned, I made friends in my class at university, in the hostel I’ve arrived in at the beginning, and even at gigs or when I visited a flat! I also managed to find a flatshare with Scots, which was something I really wanted from the start: to speak English with English-speakers, in order to improve my language as much as possible. I never felt the need to go to Erasmus parties or organised day trips, even though I know some people who did and had a great time, just like Thomas. At the end of the day, if you want to meet new people, you will easily if you are up for it. Especially as an exchange student, usually the locals enjoy having a chat with you and talking about your home country!
Thomas: I was lucky enough to find a room in a house owned by a young couple (26 years old) who were really friendly and very involved in the city’s music scene. They took me to concerts, pubs and parties and I made new friends quite naturally. But the University also had lots of happenings to ease social interactions. The Erasmus association ESN organised many bus trips to the sea or neighbouring cities with other international students which made it much easier as everyone was in the same situation. It was a great way to meet new people and make new friends to discover the city with. But if you are trying to meet locals, especially when you want to practice the language, there are also other options. When I arrived, I was given a form to fill out, asking about my hobbies, age, etc. The university then put me in contact with a volunteer who shared the same interests. The people who volunteer are usually open minded locals and if you get along, they will quickly include you within their group of friends. So there are many different ways of meeting new people, but it is true that you might have to make a little bit more effort than back home where you are more comfortable, especially with the language.
Clement: As Thomas did, I joined the ESN and met a volunteer Romanian student who introduced me to her group of friends, made me visit some spots of Bucharest and told me a lot about the local culture. It was very helpful in the first days,as I did not know anyone in the city. I can say that like Enora, I privileged encounters with local people and English-speaking students, in other words, staying away from the French. So I basically managed to stay with Romanians and Eastern Europeans, which is something I strongly advise to foreigners as it is, like everywhere in the world, the best way to fit into a country. I would join Enora and Thomas on the fact that it is easier to meet people as Erasmus students. And I would even say especially in Romania. A francophile country where local people are eager to meet “Westerners” as they call call us, often to share their huge knowledge of French culture, and to show the wonders of their country. Plus the Post-Communist generation in Bucharest has a good level of English, so I never had any problem to speak with Romanian students.
Last but not least: the academic part of the exchange. In addition to the new environment, you will also have to adapt to a new set of rules or a new way of studying. This will mostly depend on the country in which you are doing your semester, as different cultures also affect the way universities work.
Thomas: The first thing that surprised me when I finally had my timetable was the number classes I had to take. While I had about five or six different classes in France, each three hours long, I had only three subjects in Bristol, and each one taking up only two hours per week. But the excitement stopped as I got the syllabus for each class. I had to read an average of five books per subject, which kept me busy for most of my days off. I liked the fact that I could work when I wanted to and adapt my studying schedule to my social life, but it demanded a little more diligence than studying in a French University. I had a hard time convincing myself to stay home or at the library on a regular basis to do all the reading, but I was told by other people that it was not only a problem for international students. It seemed pretty common to have a very intense week before the end of the term, and the university even gave a week off dedicated to reading (or relaxing depending on how much you worked during the semester) before the exam. Overall it was not too hard to adapt, and while a lot of people told me that British students were more talkative, I did not find it especially true and the atmosphere felt very familiar.
Enora: I was also studying in a British university, and my discoveries were quite the same. I only had three courses to take, each one had one hour of seminar and one hour of tutorial. The list of books to read every week was quite long, indeed. I found it enjoyable to organise how I wanted to work and do my readings for the week. This system gives more autonomy to students. As a French student, it seems a bit strange at first, especially for the few hours of actual classes. But it is perhaps more demanding to read a few books for every course each week. I definitely agree with Thomas, it was hard work. But if you study something that interests you a lot, it’s not a problem. It wasn’t to me, anyway! It was maybe a bit complicated for the essays, because they require a lot of work and plenty of readings. British students are used to this, but as an exchange student it wasn’t always that easy to understand how you are supposed to write an essay. It is an interesting exercise, but it is different from a French dissertation or analysis. I found it difficult to write a piece with a more subjective point of view but with examples and sources to back your ideas.
Clement: In Romania things are different from the British universities. I had seven different courses, each of them demanding a different amount of preparatory work, going from 50 pages to read for one class, to 3 for an other. But as a foreigner, I had to do some personal work to catch up with my colleagues, in my “Post-communism” or “National identity” classes for example, as most of the discussions were taken from Romanian history. The proceeding of the classes is quite similar to the Anglo-Saxon model, as students are asked to discuss and debate on a subject previously studied at home. As for the gradings, teachers generally decided about the date and the form of the exam one week to ten days before the actual exam, which puts students in a great uncertainty towards the end of the semester. I even found myself in the situation of asking for an exam, as the teacher planned to grade her students at the end of the year. Even if everything is a bit confused sometimes, teachers are understanding and always keen on helping us.
In conclusion, the overall experience of an Erasmus exchange can only be beneficial. Even though it might give you a bit of stress at times, it is worth putting yourself in an environment that you are not familiar with. And you also get to meet great people, whether they are international students like you or locals. The Erasmus + experience helped us become more adaptable, we learnt a lot and made good memories along the way.
Even if this expression is a bit cliché, Erasmus is a life-time experience whose advantages cannot be listed. All you need is to experience it, you will learn a lot about your host country but most of all, you will learn about yourself and return as a new person. Of course this is not a promise, but an opportunity.