A Very European Education

With next year’s application process starting shortly, Matt Gregg explores the ins and outs of the Erasmus exchange programmeUniversity is a time full of opportunity. There are opportunities to learn, to make lifelong friends or experience different points of view. All things going to plan, students leave with hugely diverse experiences and a breadth of knowledge that stands them in good stead when they leave the student world. Though there are no set ‘must-have college experiences’, spending a year elsewhere in Europe through the Erasmus exchange programme has become an increasingly popular decision.Improving or acquiring a foreign language is probably the most evident reason for students to go abroad. Indeed, the majority of students who major in languages at UCD find that their time abroad is the tipping point between studying a language and knowing a language.One such student is Jack Good. Now going into final year French and Politics, he spent last year studying at the prestigious L’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Science Po). Upon his return home, Jack found his French had improved dramatically and commented that “just living over there, doing the day-to-day things like getting your baguette from the local boulangerie or ordering things online through French was really beneficial.”Although there are clear linguistic benefits to be gained from going on exchange, it is not the only reason to take part, and exchange courses taught through English are also available. “I learned some Czech but it’s quite difficult,” explains Aoibheann Duffy, who studies straight Law and spent last year in Prague. “But from the course, it gave me a different perspective. It was more European and it was interesting to compare two countries and, because their country is quite new, see how they established their state and constitution.”Aoibheann’s experience illustrates a core goal of the Erasmus exchange programme and explains the origins of its name. Formalised in 1987, the programme was named after the Dutch Renaissance philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, who was a keen proponent of pan-European study as a means to ensure that education did not become dogmatic. By offering European students the opportunity to experience a different education system, the Erasmus programme hopes to encourage a pluralistic approach to learning and, consequently, improve the education available to all EU citizens.Jack agreed that the Erasmus experience certainly improved his education and helped him approach final year with confidence. “[Science Po] is one of the best politics colleges in Europe, so the standard of teaching and the standard of the students was really great. In terms of coming back here it put me in a really good position.”Nevertheless, it was outside the lecture environment that Jack felt the biggest gains were made. “It’s kind of hard to quantify,” he muses when asked to clarify what he means. “But even doing this interview, I feel much more comfortable now than I maybe would have perhaps a year ago because you really do have no choice but to come out of your shell a bit more.”This personal development side of Erasmus is certainly something that Ruth Redehan, one of UCD’s International Study Co-ordinators, emphasises when explaining the benefits of the programme.  “I notice that students increase in their maturity and independence. I think that students who spend time outside of their comfort zone [benefit],” says Ruth.  “Basically they’re learning how to do things independently for the first time themselves; they don’t have their normal support structures such as family to rely on. I definitely think that that’s a big result of going on Erasmus.”“A lot of the students also will tend to have great travel opportunities. If you’re going on exchange to Europe you’re only a short train ride away from another country, or a cheap flight, and so a lot of the students come back with travel stories,” Ruth adds.This is an advantage that Jack gleefully confirms, commenting, “There’s so many different places you can go and see. I think now is probably the best time to go because you are in the structured environment of a university where you’re going to meet people the exact same age and in the exact same situation as you and so if you are thinking of going away it is kind of having the comfort blanket of that structure around you.”However, as is sadly most often the case, these great experiences come with a considerable price tag attached. “I would say it does cost quite a lot of money, and to be aware of that, and I mean I had to work two summers straight to save up to do it,” explains Jack. “I’d certainly say there are some [financial] realities you’ll have to face … so it may be difficult for some people to go away, but the rewards are so great that I wouldn’t dismiss it immediately.”These high costs were certainly a factor that heavily influenced final year German and Geography student Graham O’Brien’s decision to stay in Ireland. “Originally when I came [into UCD] back in 2008 I was on a BA International programme so there would have been a certainty of me going away for a year. Last year actually, would have been the time I would go away,” says Graham. “But in June 2010, I decided that a year away wasn’t for me because of various reasons, other than just the financial ... I mean it is quite expensive to go on Erasmus. It can be around €8,000 and I wasn’t going to have that burden on myself or my parents, because my parents have recently been made unemployed so I didn’t want to put that pressure on them.”Indeed, the financial burden is the most often cited reason for students choosing not to take the year out. “One reason for not going would be financial,” concedes Ruth. “With the Erasmus programme there is a small grant that comes from the European Union, and it varies from country to country and from year to year, but on average it’s €1,500 for the year, so that’s a help, but it doesn’t cover all the costs. I mean it also involves spending an extra year in college, it involves paying your student contribution and your student centre levy for the year when you’re abroad, so financial reasons can be a reason why students chose not to go.”Beyond the high personal cost of Erasmus, the other major concern for Graham was that he felt his German was not good enough to survive a year in Berlin. “German was and, still is, really difficult. I found that I wasn’t really getting the most of it,” he states before continuing that, although people often hear of people’s great Erasmus experiences, people are not often as aware that people have negative experiences too.“I wasn’t the only one who wanted to go on Erasmus but never did, and I think either two or three people who actually did go on Erasmus came back prematurely, whether it was health reasons or whether it was homesickness or whatever,” explains Graham. “But I was told that the Erasmus had the reputation where you’ll learn the language in no time and nobody ever comes home with a bad experience. Well, I have all my friends now home from Erasmus and some of them have very, very mixed stories.”A year on from his decision, Graham is still caught in two minds as to whether his decision was the right one. All the same, he is keen to encourage students considering doing an exchange to use all the resources at their disposal before deciding whether or not to go abroad. “I’d say, get out a piece of paper and do a pros and cons list. Now I know how old-fashioned that sounds but you’d be amazed at how it helps. And talk to your parents about it, they’re the best people in the world for advice,” he says. “In fact, actually a funny thing about it was, the night that I decided not go was their twenty-fifth anniversary and I told them during the dinner that I didn’t want to go, and they had the biggest smiles on their faces, because they were proud of me for making such a mature decision. So my advice to [students] would be just to talk to the parents and consult the department as well, because they will advise you based on the vast, vast experience that they have.”Ruth echoes Graham’s advice and urges students to get in contact with the International Office as soon as possible. “The final, final deadline is the 17th of February. That’s the deadline to fill in the details on the application form but contact with the academic coordinator should be done from now. If a student is in any way interested in going on Erasmus they should attend one of our upcoming talks. If a student thinks ‘Oh, I couldn’t go because of one reason or another’, we are here to help them with their decision.”Jack simply recommends that students watch the film L’Auberge Espagnole to understand. “It’s a bit of a classic [and] it just showed that you have a great time over there and you get to meet all these different nationalities, which I’m sure every Erasmus student tells you and you’ve heard a million times, but it really does make a huge difference.”The International Office works hard to help students work through potential obstacles and UCD can proudly state that it sends more students on exchange than any other English-speaking university. Although the problems of homesickness and financial burdens must be considered and acknowledged, the opportunities that the Erasmus exchange programme offers clearly outweigh them. Taking a year out to study in Europe is often derided as a vacation halfway through your degree, but it is much more than that. The college workload may sometimes not be as intense but that is not to say that no learning is done. Exposure to different cultures or having to tackle unusual situations is as much a part of learning as exams or essays ever will be.