For some, studying abroad as an exchange student can be an amazing experience. For others, the idea of working and socialising in a foreign country can be incredibly nerve-wracking. In either case, any student that studies abroad will most likely find themselves in a position where they have to integrate themselves in a new environment and make new friends. It can seem like the first day of college all over again. Finding a sense of belonging and familiarity through college societies can help students settle amongst like-minded people in what can seem like a new world. So, what is this experience like for exchange students studying at or away from Trinity? Do societies actually play a large role in the social experience of exchange students? And why does it seem that Trinity students are less likely to join societies when they are abroad than at home?
Trinity offers a vast amount of diverse and inclusive societies. Most students have probably heard this statement quite often, but does it appear true when compared to other universities across the globe? From the interviews I was able to conduct over this month, I believe that the answer is yes. Speaking to various different exchange students, one thing they all mentioned was how our university offers such a wide range of societies dedicated to many different cultural aspects. It seems to be one of the charms of Trinity. Albane Le Cabec is an Erasmus student from France. When asked if Trinity is a particularly good university in terms of society involvement, she said: “Yes, because I compare it with French universities in which student life is really poor”. Similarly, TCD Korean Soc member Coline Pavia, a language assistant at TCD from France, also agrees that a key strength of Trinity’s student life is its societies. “I had never encountered any university with a society specifically dedicated to Korea and that proves how interesting societies are here”.
“With over 120 registered societies, the wide range of choices for students here could mean that they are more likely to find a society that will resonate with them and their interests, despite coming from a very different background”
With over 120 registered societies, the wide range of choices for students here could mean that they are more likely to find a society that will resonate with them and their interests, despite coming from a very different background. For instance, Pavia joined the Trinity Korean Society due to her “[…] recently developed interest in K-pop, K-dramas and, globally, all Korean culture (my knowledge of which KSoc helped me improve)”. Le Cabec joined three societies at the beginning of this academic year in September – DUGES, People Before Profit and the Hiking Society. She says that she decided to take an active role in them because “all of them interest me anyway. But the fear of not being able to meet anyone also participates in my decision to join many societies”.
It appears that the reasons for joining a society given above by Pavia and Le Cabec mirror my personal motivations for joining about 50 different groups when I was a young and timid fresher. I had many interests to explore and I wanted to make friends. From these interviews it seems that the social experience of an exchange student is relatively similar to the rest of the student body. In spite of the difficulties forming bonds over Zoom, Pavia states: “I think being a foreign student does not change much. The KSoc members are all very welcoming and friendly! […] even when I was struggling with some English or communication problems (as a non-native), they always helped me with kindness and gave me much support!”. Neither Pavia, nor Le Cabec, gave the impression that they felt alienated or outcast from a society. While differing experiences are sure to bring varying outcomes, it is clear the potential for societies to be a vehicle of integration for Erasmus students is there.
“However, when speaking to Trinity students that have left Ireland for an exchange programme, there does not seem to be the same enthusiasm to join a society”
However, when speaking to Trinity students that have left Ireland for an exchange programme, there does not seem to be the same enthusiasm to join a society. Peter Walsh, Third Year student at Trinity, currently doing his erasmus in Paris displayed great enthusiasm for societies during his time in Ireland. After joining the Surf Club, Snow Sports, the Phil, the Hist, Pol Soc and TAF, Walsh finds that “being part of a Trinity society transforms college life. It allows both diverse and similar people to unite with a common goal or interest that I’ve found facilitates the most amazing relationships not just with your interests but with all those who partake with you […] I am currently sitting in a lovely house in the South of France due to friends made through the Surf Club, my favourite society and most welcoming family I’ve found in college life”. However, Walsh found that he was unable to join any societies when he began studying in Paris last September.
“Whilst the lack of participation in societies this year when abroad can definitely be a consequence of Covid-19, the fact that students coming to Ireland were more inclined to attempt to join a society than those who went abroad highlights the accessibility of Trinity’s societies”
Whilst the lack of participation in societies this year when abroad can definitely be a consequence of Covid-19, the fact that students coming to Ireland were more inclined to attempt to join a society than those who went abroad highlights the accessibility of Trinity’s societies. Walsh states: “unfortunately due to COVID-19 there were no opportunities to join any” at his university in Paris. In contrast, Pavia and Le Cabec were able to browse through the long list of societies at this year’s virtual Freshers’ Fair. That being said, Callum Perry-Knox, a fourth year student at Trinity who did his year abroad in the USA last year, describes how he was unable to join a society: “I only joined in the second semester so I didn’t really know of too many or even how to join them if I wanted to, because there wasn’t an orientation week or Freshers’ Week or whatever it’s called there after Xmas”. Indeed, Pavia agrees that the key thing when it comes to students joining a society is the Freshers’ Fair. Perhaps this disproportion could be a more general trend that happens outside of these exceptional times, if some universities do not have the same accommodating society weeks.
It must be said that this article did not conduct a comprehensive study on whether or not all Erasmus students currently at Trinity or studying away from Trinity do/do not join societies. Yet, from the few interviews I conducted I did find that Trinity students are less likely to join societies when they go abroad than they are when they are at home.
Why is this? Perhaps when studying abroad, you are so focused on academics and enjoying the culture of a new country that you neglect the opportunities that the university can provide you? Or maybe it is due to insecurity? The pandemic? Or maybe, it’s just that Trinity societies provide something exceptional. Students tend to say that there is pretty much enough choice for everyone out there. Therefore, it can be hard to resist signing up for three or four societies at the Freshers’ Fair each year – be that online or in person.
That being said, the exchange students that came to Trinity who did join societies say that it has definitely enriched their experience at the college. To use Pavia’s words: “I think societies are one of the major, if not the most important, means for an Erasmus student to develop friendships and feel like they belong in their university”.