Upon receiving my Leaving Cert results, I spent some time reflecting on the precariousness of what constitutes a “success” in these exams. I eventually came to the conclusion that the success I achieved in my results rested entirely on the fulfillment of certain conditions, both long-term and short. Much like that gloriously recurring biology experiment we all knew by heart, my capacity to “germinate” as a student required perfect conditions: patience from my family, access to academic resources, a robust emotional support system, and most importantly, stability.
Of course, this is rather self-evident. The tragic part, however, is that, given the nature of the Leaving Cert, there was just one opportunity granted to students to make it happen, less-than-desirable backdoors aside. But more crucially, our success relied upon the capricious alignment of the right stars at the right moment. For instance, for my cousin, whose father was diagnosed with cancer during mocks season, the stars did not align. Though I worked hard, and certainly did not wish to play this down, I was reminded that my capacity to do well in the Leaving Cert was largely predetermined. I was privileged.
As I near the end of my Erasmus year, I have been drawing some (admittedly loose) comparisons. What my Erasmus and Leaving Cert years have had in common is that both have been “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities”, both have been accompanied by particular, and often high, expectations from me as well as from those around me, both have prompted that dreaded question of “how’re you getting on?” over and over again, and the experiences of both have been mostly uncontrollable.
I don’t mean to imply that the Erasmus exchange should be met with even the smallest ounce of the dread, fear or criticism that we direct towards the Leaving Cert exams. It is an incredible opportunity which should be seized and appreciated in its entirety. However, we are told over and over again that Erasmus will be the best year of our lives, and to have such huge expectations from the outset can cause problems. Somehow, we are going to have the most fantastic time abroad, but with this comes an intense pressure to make it so.
“I’ll be the first to admit this year has not been the best year of my life.”
We often discuss the trials associated with embarking on a year abroad: leaving your home environment for the first time, learning to live through another language, understanding a new culture, navigating the workings of a new transport system, establishing a new friend group. I was lucky in that I did not experience the typical “Erasmus shock” that many talk about. I had lived away from home before, I am familiar with the French and their ways, and my command of the language was good enough for me to get by. From the outset, I had a wonderful group of friends whom I’ve relied upon and with whom I have discovered this beautiful city and its different way of life.
Nevertheless, I’ll be the first to admit this year has not been the best year of my life. I should also add that it is not because the Erasmus experience has been negative or underwhelming in any way; it is because life itself has not been easy. Last August, in all of my excitement, I could not have envisaged the challenges I would face over the course of the year. Though the Erasmus programme itself did not create these difficulties, the fact that I was participating in the programme did contribute to them in some ways. When life at home seemed to be falling apart on many occasions, I resented the fact that I was away. I was unable to help with difficulties happening at home, and at the same time, I desperately sought the emotional support and guidance of loved ones, and frankly, a counselling service.
I feel ashamed to admit that my Erasmus year has not been a great experience, ashamed that I am not sitting here writing an article about all the fun I’ve had – which, to clarify, I actually have had. I feel shame when I see other Erasmus students posting albums on Facebook of all the travelling they’ve done and nights out that they’ve had while I find myself struggling to keep it all together. I feel ashamed that when people ask me how my year has been, beaming in anticipation of a positive response, the best reply that I can muster is “yeah, it’s been good”. I fear that I will be branded by others, who don’t and couldn’t possibly understand my situation, as “not having tried hard enough”.
“it is a destructive principle to live by, as believing that we are fundamentally and exclusively responsible for the conditions of our own existence precludes the possibility of treating ourselves with compassion.”
What has comforted me recently is attempting to understand where these feelings of shame come from. We tell ourselves over and over that we are the masters of our own destinies, that we get out of life exactly what we put into it. Though there is truth in these narratives, they can also be very damaging. Of course, we are responsible for our own happiness, but there is so much that is entirely out of our control. This way of thinking is not just characteristic of the college community or the “millennial” generation, but is a fundamentally modern way of thinking. Because we believe that we possess the power to create and control our lives, we are consequently irredeemably responsible for the way our lives turn out. The homeless man on the street is responsible for the circumstances he has found himself in. So is Barack Obama, and so are we.
However, as the germination experiment proves, this is simply not the case – we have less control than we like to believe. Moreover, it is a destructive principle to live by, as believing that we are fundamentally and exclusively responsible for the conditions of our own existence precludes the possibility of treating ourselves with compassion.
The effect of our faith in fundamental free will is a subtle, but powerful, type of peer pressure which we internalise. Our lives are determined by us and us alone, and thus, we hold others to the same standards. This also means that we go to great pains to show others that we are “thriving”. We fear being perceived as “lazy”, as though we are “not living life to the full”, which urges us to project an image which portrays otherwise. We are constantly striving for the apex of “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” – those enlightening life experiences, such as travelling and excelling in our areas of interest – while holding no esteem for the basic needs. We forget that sometimes, when the conditions of our lives are less than optimal, it is an achievement to simply get out of bed and go outside. This is why image is such a obsession for our generation. It is not a bid for popularity or the result of vanity – we merely want respect, and to be perceived as responsible, functioning, in control, and even grateful. Moreover, it comes from a place of harsh self-criticism, the shame which we have internalised.
“Although Erasmus may not always be all it is cracked up to be, it is […] nothing if not character-building.”
The reason why we feel this pressure to excel so intensely when on Erasmus is because it is a milestone, and with milestones come expectations and a sense of collective awareness – much like the Leaving Cert, our first year in college, and, I predict, our first year as graduates.
I say none of this in a bid to dismiss the Erasmus programme and the enormous opportunities it provides us with, or to disregard the wonderful experiences many have had, and that even I have had, despite it all. It truly is the best year of many people’s lives. These stories are necessary – they are hopeful, and inspire others to take the leap. It has been life-changing for me, but in a different sense. What has been most valuable is not the Instagram posts, the anecdotes, or the inexplicable “aura” of having travelled, but instead the way in which this year has allowed me to mature. Without access to my home, a counsellor who is not a 60 year-old Frenchman, or even an adequate WiFi connection, I’ve had to make peace with what I have. I’ve learned to become self-reliant in times of isolation, and I’ve learned how to overcome the niggling sense of shame that I first felt.
For those of you who are about to embark on your year abroad, I do not wish to inspire cynicism. Although Erasmus may not always be all it is cracked up to be, it is, for each and every individual, nothing if not character-building. For those of you who were not presented with the opportunity to go, and for those who are abroad and are struggling, I hope that the moral of the germination experiment can provide some solace.