The lovely French movie “L’auberge espagnole” showed the life changing power of a semester abroad. Nowadays this opportunity, that is made possible by scholarships such as ERASMUS, becomes more and more common for college students. Studying in another country for one or two semesters is definitely an experience that will broaden your horizon and also be a lot of fun. These are the tips I can share with you after spending six months wonderful with ERASMS in Seville, Spain.
Advantages: Why you should seize the opportunity
- You’re free and flexible
Of course it depends on your schedule and on how serious you take your studies – or how serious you have to take it to meet the requirements of your scholarship. But normally, as an exchange student, you have plenty of free time to explore the city, travel and hang out with friends. Usually teachers don’t even care if you miss a class now and then because you spend a long weekend on the beach or partied to hard the other night. They know that this is the time of your life. Enjoy it – if you go to another country to work or for an internship, you might have more money, but you won’t be as free.
- It’s a foreseeable lapse of time
A semester abroad is also suitable for you when you are not exactly planning to emigrate forever, even when you’re unsure whether you are ready for this experience at all. Because a semester abroad is always a foreseeable lapse of time, depending on your program four months to one year – after that you will be home again and probably continue with the life you had before. In contrast to moving abroad for a permanent job, a semester abroad is actually no more than a longer holiday. Even if you don’t like it or get very homesick, you know that it won’t be forever. But trust me: When the end is near you probably don’t want to leave.
- Making friends is easy
Getting to know new people from all over the world and making them your friends will never be as easy again. Especially in a big college with many exchange students, there are many people your age that are sitting in the same boat and are accordingly looking for the same thing you are looking for: friends, fun and parties. If not in your regular classes, you will meet them in language courses or at welcome parties for foreign students. In contrast to the superficial encounters you might have in hostels during backpacking trips, during your semester abroad you have at least four to six months to deepen the friendship. After your semester abroad you might have couches to sleep on all over the world. And a significant number of people even find the love of their life during their exchange semester.
- You’re taken care of
In most cases, your college at home and your host college take over most of the organization. Before you leave, your teachers in your country will tell you what to do and consider and once you arrive there will be plenty of inductions at your host university and people to help you to find out which courses to select for your schedule. In some countries such as Sweden, Norway or the Netherlands, the college even help you to find a place to live or ensure you a room in a local students’ residence.
Typical traps and how to avoid them
- Getting stuck in ERASMUS culture
Especially when you are in a big European city, it is very likely that you will spend most of your time with other exchange students. While the native students have their friends and their hobbies in town already and actually have to study or work sometimes, the other foreign students are just as free and hedonistic as you. Per se, that is fine as you get to know not only the culture of your host country, but a lot more cultures as well. But you also risk to get to know your host country on a tourist’s level only. Especially when you spend your semester abroad in a non-English speaking country you might end up speaking English with the other foreigners all the time instead of learning the country’s language properly.
How to avoid it: If you want to avoid this already in the preparation, select a small college with less foreign students for your semester abroad. If you don’t have this choice, look for a tandem partner. Besides improving you language skills, your tandem partner might be your key to the culture of the country you are staying in. You can also try to find a hobby outside of college to get to know more native people. A friend of mine joined a lace making class when she moved to Ireland and found herself having tea and scones with some nice Irish ladies who are testimonies of the last decades of Irish history. With this exceptional hobby, my friend got close to this country’s culture really fast.
- Making the wrong impression in your CV
“ERASMUS, Orgasmus” – this German rhyme, that probably doesn’t need any translation, describes a semester abroad quite well. Although nowadays employers kind of expect it from every CV to have a semester abroad in it, they are also aware of the fact that the intercultural exchange mainly takes place in pubs or at the beach. Which is the truth about the majority of exchange students.
How to avoid it: Collect some proofs that show that a huge hangover is not your only souvenir. That can be a report of exams that you passed abroad. Hopefully with good grades, that show that you were actually doing something more than binge drinking. The certificate of a language course you completed or some voluntary work or projects are useful as well.
- Losing grip
A semester abroad is a really intense experience and nearly everyone suffers some kind of breakdown either while living abroad or after coming home. Some students lose control because they drink or party too much, some get incredibly homesick, some start to question everything they ever believed in or experience some major changes in their personality. Some can’t bear the thought that they will have to leave this awesome crazy life again soon, that it’s just some kind of long holiday. Some fall in love and leaving the country breaks their heart. Some are okay with leaving when the semester ends but once they are back home, everything they enjoyed before suddenly seems meaningless and they feel as social misfits within their old circle of friends because they changed so much. The protagonist in “L’auberge espagnole” even hallucinates about Desiderius Erasmus, the man that gave the ERASMUS program its name.
How to avoid it: Even if there was a way, don’t avoid it. It’s part of the experience.