Being thrown into a new city, a new house-hunt, a new language, and new classmates with already established social circles can be an exciting prospect, yet it is understandably daunting. Many students in Trinity are offered the opportunity to take a term or year to go abroad and study their degree in a different university through the Erasmus+ program. Speaking to Trinity News, four students shared their experiences and advice for prospective applicants.
A good starting point is to consider the positives of an Erasmus as well as the potential downsides. Despite the inherent subjectivity, a range of common threads appeared when talking to the students. The main positives included meeting new people, learning about new cultures and putting yourself out of your comfort zone, and particularly, developing your language skills. Two students deemed the opportunity to develop your knowledge of a foreign language as a crucial perk. Milan Hartney, a Law and German student in Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, described how his German “improved incrementally over time”. Ellie O’Neill, an English student who spent one term at the Sorbonne IV enthusiastically concurred, citing Paris as the “perfect place” to develop French language skills as they provide “no choice other than to speak it when you’re there, as opposed to, say, Montréal, which is entirely bilingual and much kinder towards Anglophone people”. This contrasts with the experience of Mary Tiernan, a BESS student in Utrecht University, where English is sufficient: “Everyone speaks Dutch, but most Dutch people speak English, so if you tell them you don’t speak Dutch they’ll switch to English straight away.”
“Many students did not receive their grants until December, posing particular difficulties for one-term students.”
However, this is not always the case. For Maeve Harris, an English student studying at the University of Zurich for the year, the language barrier has been a significant struggle. To combat this, Harris advised students considering Zurich to “brush up on their German, though residents here speak Swiss-German which cannot be taught, it’s not available on Google Translate and you cannot take Swiss-German language classes, but is instead picked up socially.” So while some preparation will make the experience easier, language barriers may be a critical aspect of whether or not a host university is for you.
All four students interviewed were of the view that Trinity unquestionably fails to prepare students for their studies abroad. O’Neill referenced how at the Sorbonne, there was no indication of what modules could be taken before arriving at the college, and even when she arrived it was ambiguous. Harris faced similar circumstances: “I was given little to no direction at all as to how many credits I am required to take, whether or not I am allowed to take pass or fail classes, which make up half of the English course here at UZH.”
Another common sentiment was the lack of financial resources to aid those going on Erasmus, with Trinity News reporting in November that many students had a delay in receiving their grant. Many students did not receive their grants until December, posing particular difficulties for one-term students. O’Neill believes the grant, which is €230 per month for students in French universities, is not “enough at all” and in turn, it led her to feel that “Erasmus was only designed for students who are not in difficult financial situations which is obviously elitist”. Harris advised students aspiring to go on Erasmus to research it as much as possible. “Erasmus students in Zurich are given a grant of 1,900 franc a semester, but that amount of money is not livable by any means. Because I do not have a job here, as I do not speak Swiss-German, I have no way of generating any sort of income.” Tiernan agreed, she expressed that Trinity have been “absolutely no help”. She continued: “They never checked to see if I had accommodation, they never emailed to see how I was getting on, and any time I email my Erasmus coordinator I usually have to send two follow up emails to ask if he got the first one before he replies.”
“As college is a rare stage in life that allows students to be relatively easily uprooted, it is the perfect opportunity to do so.”
An additional difficulty for students is the social side of Erasmus. Factors to consider include loneliness, homesickness, and a fear of missing the ongoings at Trinity. Hartney explained how “cultural differences make it difficult to make friends – primarily due to [a] very different sense of humour, knowing that everything else carries on in Dublin and my life stagnates.” O’Neill was in agreement, recommending going only if you “don’t mind having to make a whole new social group while also studying in a new university and working a new job”. Tiernan referenced accommodation as a source of isolation, as for many host universities, Trinity offer little to no guidance. Harris had a similar experience but found it less severe over time, and advised to “fight the urge to be sad because you are away from friends and family and make the biggest effort to acclimate”, as she “had felt completely alone here during my first semester, though the later half of the year has been significantly easier because I have been settled here for a few months.”
However, despite these complications, the majority of students interviewed would recommend taking the leap. Even considering her rocky start, Harris was encouraging, highlighting the value of “meeting tons of new people and getting to experience another education system in a foreign country”. Harris was shocked to realise “how self-sufficient I can be in a country where I do not know the language”. Tiernan responded similarly: “I have become a lot more independent, and feel like I could now move to any city by myself and be okay. It sounds really cliché, but I’ve learnt a lot about myself as I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone a lot more.”
On whether or not they’d recommend one term over two, the majority of students questioned agreed that a full year is the way to go, to allow for enough time to settle in and enjoy the experience of a new city. Harris expressed that she was really able to appreciate her second term “because of how obviously it juxtaposed” with her first term. Although Hartney reflected another commonly held belief – that one term allows you to experience a city without letting administrative errors or other issues influence your grades and overall year: “You can reap rewards without overstaying.”