This has nothing to do with my current adventures but might be of value to some of my readers who are students or have friends or relatives that are. I am talking studying abroad, or Erasmus exchange to be more precise. I am passionate about all things travel and a firm believer in it being the best teacher there is. Nowhere will you learn more about the world and yourself than when you travel.
And the stories that you have to have a lot of money to traveland you are not safe if you do it alone are just that, myths. When you can, take the chance to travel and that goes especially during studies. It is an entirely different experience to regular travel and when you hear people raving about their Erasmus or worldwide exchange, it is for a very good reason. It is indeed life-changing and eye-opening. But it is also tremendously scary and to some extent takes some bravery.
The other day, I was contacted by one of you lovely readers for any tips on the Netherlands I might have. I had none (or maybe just the general festivities and cities to hit up) since I have not been there myself (but seriously should). Instead, I had tons of tips on being an Erasmus student and on studying abroad. Since my points are valid for all prospective and current Erasmus students, I won’t keep them from all of you to read for yourself or share with others. Let’s spread the travel bug and build more confidence! Travel is the best educator and to combine that with higher studies is just pure gold, if you ask me.
[blockquote]Dear Erasmus student,[/blockquote]
You must be terribly excited! This is going to be your great life-changing experience! You will be far away from your parents, live in your own little place, work through all of this paperwork to get accepted and then apply some more for scholarships, limited student accommodation, courses and sometimes even coveted extracurricular student trips! Sounds like a lot of fun? No, I didn’t think so. Naturally, you are worried and I was too. Wait, I wasn’t worried. I was panicking.
I made a mental list of all the things that could go wrong during an Erasmus exchange, such as embarrassing myself in front of all my fellow international students while wearing pyjamas with teddy slippers during a presentation (I never even owned those, but I guess you can add a fear of fashion crimes to the list). Oh wait, I was worried about that without even going abroad. So, I sought help at my international office. A lot. They even referred me to a student who had been there before just to get me off their backs and that was just the right thing to do.
Worrying, I Know
She had been at the exact same universities as I was coming from and where I was going to, she had been an awkward introvert herself according to her own statements and seemed like such an inspiration to me. Full of radiating passion, a new sense of style and a boost in confidence. I needed that! What I did, accordingly, was to try out her main advice she shared with me. I started wearing miniskirts. You see, our exchange university was in Preston, England, and British girls in the area had developed quite the remarkable skill of wearing the skimpiest clothes during the worst weather just so they can look hot and keep the cloakroom coins for shots to warm them from within.
I was warned of the crassest scenes during my studies abroad and shown pictures to prepare me. I was in for some serious wardrobe makeover and since dedication is my second name, I ditched the jeans for a trial week and wore my dusty pink miniskirts. One time a car nearly crashed into a post because of it (and I don’t even have the greatest legs to show for). I guess I never realised how insanely fashion backward my home town was. Aside from being a walking crime scene, the weather was growing cold and I was doubtful whether I could pull this off. English winters can be harsh. But once I saw that fashion in Northern England was adopted straight out of a magazine or was neglected entirely and traded for a comfortable trainer outfit, I learnt that nobody really bothered about looks. It was refreshing. No near car crashes this time. And I donned some warm sweaters and big coats.
Be Like Madonna – Reinvent Yourself during Your Erasmus Exchange but Be Yourself
And with the newfound freedom to wear whatever I wanted, I realised that even so I could do whatever I wanted and be whoever I wanted to be. The joy in experiencing an exchange abroad is that you have so many benefits that will change your life profoundly, whether you realise it at that time or not. The only condition is to allow it to happen. Don’t come with a predefined set of expectations and should-bes. You are a foreigner in this country and should seek to learn and adapt accordingly (and not ask others to sell you answers to tests or their homework as happened to me). Don’t give up your personal and cultural identity but integrate and assimilate. It is a fine balance and the more you dive into it, the better you will be at it.
If you do not do it, you will end up like a friend I made and quickly lost during my exchange. She was from Belgium and she hated everything. Whenever she wasn’t at uni and complaining about everyone in our courses being Chinese and making her life incredibly hard (most of our fellow students spoke English only at a very basic level), she locked herself into her room and listened to sad Carla Bruni songs. She left after three months and instantly cut off everyone she just met. We never heard a peep from her after she gave in to her homesickness and left for good. The last thing I remembered were her racist remarks and her reluctance to dance with even her best friend at a club as she didn’t know the songs (who knows all the songs in clubs anyway?!).
Be Your Own Manager during Your Study Exchange
Since you are no longer (or at least not temporarily) living at Hotel Mama, you need to look after all the boring household chores yourself. Yes, even – and especially – if you live in a shared accommodation. Don’t be a jerk and expect others to clean up your mess, do all the chores and stock up the fridge for you. It sounds like a ‘duh’ thing to say but until this day I meet so many backpackers who cannot even do these simple. And I’ve had my fair share of flatmates who didn’t even know how to wipe the stove top and used their manicured nails instead (and yes, I did show them). It ultimately comes down to a social co-living and learning to look after yourself. In the end, you might even be a master at ironing all your difficult clothes and tell your mom how she’s doing things wrong and do it better. Yes, an Erasmus exchange can do that.
What else you will have to learn if you don’t want to spend all your money and ruin your health and figure is cooking. No one expects you to be a master chef but making a simple dish that is not pasta and ketchup based goes a long way in keeping your stomach and yourself happy. To be honest, I always refused to learn to cook as a teen as I thought it was a sexist thing (says the person who later turned out to be a massive foodie and is cooking whenever she can) and when I was in England I was soon fed up with ready-made frozen dishes and burgers. So I learnt how to make steak dishes and ultimately cooked whatever I felt like eating. I swear your world will light up like it did for Ratatouille from the same name Disney movie. There are enough easy recipes (try my yummy chokladbollar recipe for the ultimate chocolate fix) and youtube videos out there for you to have absolutely no excuse.
Handle Your Money Smartly during Your Exchange
When you are surrounded by new Erasmus friends you will soon find yourself attending all kinds of parties, trips and international dinners. These will quickly blow a hole in your wallet but since those experiences are the ones you need to make and will fondly remember for a long time, you need to be smart about it to not finish your Erasmus asking for pocket money from your parents. First, you will need to learn how to save up and reduce your spending habits. There are dozens of different ways to save on money without having to live like a monk (check out my 90+ ways to save). Just giving up on one of your vices could help a lot, as an example.
First, why not make a boring excel list during the whole of your Erasmus exchange to write down what and how much you are spending? You’ll be surprised to see the numbers add up and then you can cut down on some areas if you know clearly what you are spending. Don’t just use your credit card all the time as it A) makes you spend more recklessly and B) might come with fees (check with your bank or sign up for a local one). Think about alternatives? Why always eat out on special coupons when you could have a cooking session with friends and split the bill or cook big portions for yourself that you can freeze and reheat throughout the week. Here are some low-cost and simple recipe ideas for you to try out.
Do Your Research for Your Exchange
There are a lot of resources for you to aid you in your first Erasmus exchange. Your first stop should involve the university homepages of both your own and your exchange uni. You will get a good overview over what is offered and what to expect. Then, get in touch with the international offices and ask them for more input, procedures and things you will need to consider (such as housing, living costs, etc). They can help you with applications as well as possible funding from the EU. I, for instance, received a scholarship both for my Erasmus exchange and an international internship and it helped me a lot to not have to worry too much about money.
Remember my Belgian friend? Her main problem was how she coped with change and culture shock. It is perfectly normal to go through phases of hating and loving your stay, but you need to be aware of that in order to conquer it. The most important way to cope with culture shock is to just be open to the experience. Don’t swallow your feelings, but accept and talk/write about them. Make friends, keep at your hobbies and travel. Don’t end up on skype calls every day with people from home while you’re on your study exchange, it will make matters far worse. Try to see how independent you can be and know that it’s completely ok to feel overwhelmed or lonely at times.
You’re not Alone during Your Erasmus Exchange
Are you down for an exchange? Chances are if you’ve read this far, you are. So if you haven’t applied yet, what is holding you back? Ask your uni about information seminars, check websites and get the ball rolling. Attend the introductory seminars. All of them, even if they literally are about boiling an egg (I thought this was a joke but so many students needed it apparently). You will not only get a better introduction into everything but most importantly, meet people. It is a lot to learn and figure out and thus can be very frustrating but the experience is the best and so worth it. The beauty of Erasmus is that you are never alone and even if you haven’t started yet, you can already get in touch with people like I did. In our age of social media you can join facebook groups and connect with people that are in the same boat as you. You will discover that there are students out there even more worried than you are, that are less privileged or really confident and almost cocky.
Voice your questions, doubts and share your own findings. And if you are the type of person who likes to reflect on their experiences, why not start a private blog, make a scrapbook or simply keep posting about your new life on facebook and Co (while you’re there, why not give my page a ‘like’ as well?). This way you will span a bridge between your old and new life and engage people from both and create memories that last and can be viewed later. Just don’t store them away once you are back home from your Erasmus exchange. Your adventures are not an isolated part within your life, they will shape you and you should embrace them. And you will have a blast!
Now over to you. What are your thoughts on study exchanges in general and Erasmus exchange in particular? Have you done them and if so, how was it? If not, how do you picture them and would you like to do it?