For the average student going abroad is just about leisure, a diversion that only serves as a means of relaxation. For an AEGEEan however, it serves to quench the thirst for adventure; what better way to dip your toes into another culture and broadening your worldview? Perhaps that is the reason why it was so easy to make this decision. The decision to take the plunge and swim deep underneath the surface that is so commonly explored. A different ecosystem however lurks down that road with different flora and fauna than is advertised to tourists. There is no better way to familiarize yourself with another country, its customs, its language, its culture and its people. So you decide this is who you are. This is what you want. You are not satisfied wallowing in the shallow pool, just being told what it’s like is not enough. You want to experience things for yourself, to grow and learn independently. You choose the Erasmus experience.
A lot of AEGEE-Groningen members have decided to take this plunge last year, spreading over Europe and moving to different places (Exception: in two cases, the same country and even the same city). Heck, three of our current board members have done so, at the exact same time last year nonetheless! What were their reasons for doing so? How were their experiences living abroad? What do they think when they reflect back? The editorial committee could’ve easily asked one of them to write about their experiences but has decided not to do so, as then it would be more fair to ask all of them. Instead, because I am one of these people that have chosen to live abroad on the Erasmus exchange project, I decided to write an article about the experience in general. What you can expect. What you can learn. What are the things to take into consideration. The good and the bad.
First let’s talk about the project itself, what it has to offer and its preparations. Enrolling for an Erasmus exchange abroad is a hell of an experience, literally and figuratively, as any Erasmus student may tell you. You have to sign a ton of forms and ask the Board of Examiners at the RuG to accept and recognize your courses for your minor abroad. To put things into perspective: they only meet and decide on matters once a month! This means that if there is something faulty in your application, you have to file it again for next month and keep your fingers crossed you have enough time to do the rest of your preparations and your Erasmus. So rule one: Start early!
Rule two: Don’t panic. So let’s say you failed to meet the expectations of the Board of Examiners, well that’s rough, but try and talk with your study advisor or the exchange office or anyone else in the bureaucratic world of the RuG. Perhaps some strings can be pulled. You’d be surprised. Turns out that these deadlines are set extra early to prevent you from sending in those documents way too late, if you don’t meet them then it’s not the end of the world, but it’s certainly a bit healthy to keep in mind that you should take the paperwork seriously. You might miss this amazing experience otherwise. When you’re in the Brouwerij at two in the morning and you hear some random tukker screaming “SUNNY BEACH” at the top of his lungs, knowing that the next morning you have a meeting in the international office at eight or nine AM, there is certainly a decision to be made there. One last thing however: have no expectations. No expectations at all. You can set goals for yourself but don’t expect to accomplish them. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until you’ve stepped foot into your new home and are actually experiencing everything. Never set your goals in stone.
So why should you enroll in the first place? By moving to another country, you don’t only leave your own habitat, but also your own comfort zone. This allows you to be exposed to new situations and forces you to adapt to them, molding your old habitual self as you have to come up with new ways to even perform the most mundane daily tasks. This allows you to grow and pick up new skills you otherwise wouldn’t have had time for as you were too comfortable and content to consider them beforehand. Always wanted to pick up new hobbies like singing or playing the piano? Now would be the perfect time, especially if you want to learn the language of the country you are moving to! Sometimes a new environment is enough to inspire you to do something different. Trust me, the experience changes you. Every person that has done an Erasmus exchange abroad would agree, in fact this is how everyone responded when I asked them why they decided to take the Erasmus plunge.
At times things won’t run as smoothly though, as one of the downsides of a new environment is that you will need to find new friends to socialize with, which is surprisingly harder than you would think at first. One of my discoveries was that sometimes the locals just won’t care about you, which is a sad but realistic possibility. You are obviously not the first exchange student to travel to whatever destination you’ve chosen, and similarly there will be many more arriving there after you. It is an apathetic perspective, but why would they become friends with you if you’re just going to leave after a few months and you’ll never meet again? For a lot of local students, it is simply not worth trying to talk to you if they don’t speak English that well, it’s not worth getting to know you as you will leave before that will happen anyway. Even if you decide to speak their language with your (let’s say average) skill, they just don’t have the patience to decipher what you have to say. The majority of the time, your friends are going to be exchange students, which most of the time are other European students or American students that are going abroad in a gap year. Hanging out with other exchange students can be great from time to time but it can also form a bubble around you that keeps you from truly experiencing and adapt to the culture and language of the country you’re in or be open to the new opportunities around you. It’s important to find a balance if that is your goal. If you’re lucky, your housemates are locals and that changes everything.
Living abroad also grants you the ability to travel to other countries you normally wouldn’t travel to. If you’re going to do your Erasmus in Spain like I did, you might want to visit Portugal or Morocco. Likewise, if you’re doing a Marco Polo exchange to Asia, might be interesting to visit other Asian countries as well. Heck, go crazy, are you going to live in Sweden? Perfect opportunity to visit Israel! Of course your studies should always be your priority, but the difficulty of minors abroad varies greatly so it’s something you will have to determine for yourself. Live a little, this is a special period in your life. You know that as an Erasmus student you have almost zero expectations, aside from being a party animal right?
Well as it turns out, not everyone likes the fact that this is how Erasmus students are perceived. Again, this varies greatly from country to country and depends on the city and all of that, but not everyone is as fond of Erasmus students like you are. Perhaps local students will mistrust you or treat you in a different way just because you are an Erasmus student, like stated before. Or perhaps it’s just you. This should be the time of your life, remember? You should be a party animal right? But what if your studies aren’t going so smoothly as you expected them to go? What if there are unexpected factors pressuring you and keeping you from doing what you want? Or what if you simply don’t feel like it? Disappointment, loneliness, stress, these are the reasons you should have no expectations before you go on your Erasmus. No expectations at all, or they will blow up in your face. These kinds of issues only grow when you isolate yourself from your home country and the people you are close with. It is advised to keep a line of communication open to talk with people should you need to do so. Homesickness, for example. I have almost never called my family in my life. I decided to stay in Madrid at Christmas however and I have called them almost daily in that period. That is one of the few things I would’ve done differently if I would ever get the chance to do so. Well, that, and I found out Madrid has two theme parks only after I returned home.
But through all of those difficulties, and with all of those positive experiences and the many opportunities to grow, you are able to find yourself or discover something in yourself you have never found before. Maybe you will learn a new skill like a language or instrument like I said before, or perhaps you will come to learn something about your personality or a new way of life. One thing I find very funny is that almost literally every Erasmus student I have talked to has discovered the same cooking trick/life hack that I have: Slice and boil potatoes and put them in the oven with some olive oil and seasoning. Easy, cheap, crunchy and delicious! None of us has ever done this in Groningen, but somehow when we travelled abroad we learned to do the exact same thing even though we lived in dramatically different places. Experiences vary greatly, there is no real “Erasmus experience”, it’s very personal.
And then you find yourself at the airport again, with a ticket to Amsterdam or Eindhoven in your hand, ready to fly back to the land of little frogs, potatoes, cities that feel like villages and where it rains pipe-steals. When you return you won’t immediately notice, you don’t realise what the experience has done to you, you still need to process everything. But when you do you might come to fascinating conclusions or you will come to enjoy your own country in a different way. Once I returned to Groningen, I learned to appreciate the city a lot more than I used to. I could really feel the wind blowing in my face while cycling next to the canals and enjoy the busy, dimly lit streets full of people in the night, especially in the Kei-week and with good friends. Hell, even my own language, the ability to speak Dutch is something I took for granted my entire life. In the words of Arend-Jan: “When I returned home, I could barely believe what I saw. I was in my room when suddenly the realization hit me. There, on the wall hung a poster with the exact skyline of Hong Kong. It had hung there for years without me ever realizing what it was.” Eerie right?
So should you choose the Erasmus experience, know that it is a box you cannot un-open. It is a ride you cannot get out of once you’re in, you’ll have to sit it out until the end and only after lots and lots of self-reflection and processing you will be able to accurately describe it. Then, and only then, can you finally answer the typical question that you (and everyone else that has done it) receive when you return home: “What was it like?” This time perhaps without the frustration and difficulty that inadvertently comes with it. If you are going to do your Erasmus soon or are planning to do so, I can only wish you good luck and a lot of fun. And in the end that is the most important: Rule three is to remember to have fun! Enjoy!