PhD student and Instructor in the Life Sciences Chris Hobbs takes us on his Erasmus year journey, and throws in some advice for good measure.
During the second year of my undergraduate degree in Biosciences at Canterbury Christ Church University, I had the chance to engage with the Erasmus programme at Leuphana Universitat Luneburg in Germany. Erasmus is an EU student exchange programme that allows students to study a year of their programme abroad at an international university. During our recent applicant day, a number of students expressed an interest in this, and I thought it would be best for me to share my experiences of this, to help inform people’s decisions to apply for this.
The first challenge with choosing to go on an Erasmus exchange, is the actual decision! Leaving your country for an entire year, especially after potentially only living away from home for a year previously is a daunting choice. You’ve just made all of these wonderful (and maybe not-so-wonderful) friends during your first year, so you may be a little hesitant to suddenly up and leave them. However, they WILL still be there when you get back! Moving abroad by yourself will put you well outside of your comfort zone, something I personally enjoy, so it’s not for everyone.
The next challenge you will face is the language barrier. You do not need to be fluent in the language of your country of travel before you choose it. I’d taken GCSE German at school, and had a passable German vocabulary, but nothing spectacular, and had forgotten most of it by then! Leuphana offered online German language courses that I could engage with before I arrived to bring up my oral, reading, and writing skills.
When I was at Leuphana, there was the opportunity to engage with intensive language courses throughout the semesters there. There are many products around that you can engage with (such as Duolingo) that will allow you to practice your skills before you leave. I feel that these are vital, not to the courses (as many of the lecturers will be willing to discuss things with you in English), but with social life outside of university. This is an equally vital part of your exchange, it’s designed as an academic and cultural exchange. I knew a few students abroad who were only there to study, and did not socialise with the local or international students, and I found they struggled more with their courses. Throwing yourself into a new culture, and learning from it through integration is incredibly rewarding, and helps you make friends for life.
Accommodation is your next major hurdle to overcome. With this, you need to organise it early! As soon as you have got your Erasmus agreement in place, talk to the International Offices at both CCCU and at your host university. They will be able to aid you with this. With Leuphana, the international office there was the driving force behind this, and all payments, rental agreements etc. went through them. Even with this, it wasn’t plain sailing. My first house I was supposed to be in was being redecorated when I arrived, so I had to transfer to a different flat upon arrival, which caused so much confusion! As a part of this, the local student who was supposed to meet me at the station with my keys and show me around the city was not there when I got to Luneburg. I had to navigate my way to the university by bus (with the help of the friendliest bus driver ever, who went out of his way to make sure I got off at the correct stop) and find the international office to be able to get into my flat!
Choose the right courses! Whilst you may roll your eyes at this, it’s incredibly easy to fall foul to this. Many of the universities that provide Erasmus placements have most of their courses in their native language, but host a smattering of courses in English. You are in charge (mostly), of the courses you take. You have to run them past your Erasmus co-ordinator at both host and home university, but ultimately it is down to you. Some courses are really relevant to your course, some are at a slight tangent, but will give you insight into new fields of science, and some are so far removed from what you are supposed to be studying that you could essentially be doing a different degree! For example, Leuphana had a course taught entirely in English called ‘Databases for Muggles’. I talked to the international coordinators and I COULD have taken this course, as the technical skills could be transferred to what I would have studied, and it being taught in English would have made my life a whole lot easier. However, taking it would have made my life harder upon my return to 3rd year at CCCU. Instead, I took a 3rd year course called ‘Laborprakticum Umweltchemie’ (practical environmental chemistry) that was entirely taught and assessed in German, which gave me an incredible amount of lab experience, that set me up for many of my third year courses, even though Google Translate became my best friend during this time.
Erasmus exchanges take a lot of work, both to set up, and whilst you are out there. You will be put out of your comfort zone, and have to work harder than you have even done before. It will not be easy. However, it is one of the most rewarding experiences you will have, and can make lifelong friends.