March for Education: observations from afar

Newsfeeds were filled with content from the March of Education this week. Caoimhe Gordon explains how reflecting on education at home leads to comparisons to the situation students on Erasmus find themselves in today.


This week, Dublin city came to a standstill as thousands of determined students made their intentions as clear as that Wednesday morning and marched for Free Education. They tossed aside their timetables, they decorated posters with gusto and witty captions. Their voices echoed in the autumnal sunshine and their rhythm of their marching feet, alongside their calls for what is right, acted as the soundtrack for their endeavours.

Of course, this information was, for some of us, gleaned from Snapchat and unyielding newsfeeds. Those of us on Erasmus could only send our support from afar. We know how the system works in Ireland, we hope that 12,000 voices cannot be ignored. However, as much as many of us wish we could revel in this revival in student activism, we instead must seek out a new normal in our education abroad.

Being educated in another land far from home offers many challenges that one may expect: a language barrier, extreme weather conditions, an angry German housemate recommending you clean up your sweetcorn. However, the most commonly used phrase adopted by the Erasmus student is the exclamation of how different college is here. Not bad, not good, just out of the norm from previously held and commonly accepted notions of years gone by.

One of the largest difference is the ability to choose your own timetable. Armed only with a number of credits that must be reached, it is a decidedly different experience than logging into and hoping for the best. Often, the difficulties in reaching the amount of credits required while simultaneously having prerequisites for their return in fourth year can lead to more difficulties outside the lecture hall. Megan McNelis, third year Business and German student had a simple proposal to this issue: “Trinity should really offer online courses for people who don’t have the option to take appropriate courses in their exchange university,” she explained. It is hard to juggle such a responsibility when previously students have not been presented with more than one choice between modules.

However, there are more serious elements to be encountered when studying abroad, particularly in central Europe this year. The fear of a terrorist attack akin to those experienced in Paris and Brussels is palpable here. Many of us studying in Germany experienced nerves in the hectic approach to Oktoberfest this year. Our language teacher, an elderly German woman with a fondness of bringing her large dog to class, warned us that visitor numbers to the world renowned festival of beer would drop substantially as German people attempt to avoid situations where a terrorist attack was likely. Her prediction was proved correct- the festivities experienced the lowest level of visitors in fifteen years.

Last week, headlines in Germany loudly announced the news that a migrant planning on attacking a Berlin attack had been caught and restrained by two fellow Syrians, adding only to the unease that Germans feel about the current situation especially due to the fact that the suspect managed to escape from the police’s clutches only days before. This sense of unease is felt quite strongly for students studying abroad in France. Keire Murphy, a Law and French student, studies in Sciences Po, Paris and has experienced the previously unfathomable difference in the situation from living in Ireland’s capital: “The guards in Dublin definitely did not prepare me for the military with machine guns who are crawling all over the city- which at this stage, I don’t even notice any more.” She explained how students there have no option but to become accustomed to the bag checks and occasional evacuations that accompany their education: “Really, you just adapt, like everything else. We just laugh about it now!”

The minute I fully realised the sheer scale of the situation hit me last week as I travelled on a bus between Dusseldorf and where I study. I will never again complain about Bus Eireann’s severe lack of punctuality. As we approached Frankfurt, the bus driver suddenly swerved into the car park of a service station and stopped the bus. Seconds later, five police officers- each armed- entered the bus. Two stood back to back at the front of the bus, another pair hovered near the back of the bus. The final police man maintained his place at the top and spoke into the bus driver’s microphone. “This bus is now under police control.” He announced first in confident German, than in less steady English. “Please provide us with ID, do not use your mobile phones and stay in your seats.” Thus began the longest delay on a bus I have experienced and the illusion of German efficiency was forever shattered.

All our passports were collected. One by one, we were instructed to collect all our baggage and belongings and to exit the bus, accompanied by a police officer. We were offered no information about why 10am bus from Passau to Essen had been chosen for such a search. Some members of the bus that appeared to be from outside Europe had their seats examined again after they had disembarked. Quite a scene awaited us outside the bus- there were 18 police officers in total. First our bags were placed through a scanner that had been set up, similar to those found in airports. Then the bags were searched and placed in a long line all beside each other. The passengers were each individually searched. A sniffer dog was brought out to examine all the assembled luggage as we huddled impatiently in the evening chill.

Nothing was discovered. I questioned a police man about this before we were granted back our IDs. He claimed that they were searching for drugs, weapons and money that were often smuggled throughout Germany on these buses. The whole experience left a sour taste in my mouth. It also left me delayed on my journey and made me reflect fondly on the transport system of Dublin. So the bus may disappear off the Real Time information- I would rather that than feeling on edge, on the edge of the German motorway.

For every mundane administration issues of the day or the destruction of stereotypes and the overhanging threat of acts of terrorism, there are also the triumphs of learning about new cultures, gaining fluency in a language and travelling somewhere other than back home on the train for the weekend.  Experiencing education abroad offers students a chance to see the world outside the hallowed halls of the Art Block or the building where they have spent the majority of their first two years of third level education.

Furthermore, a taste of education miles away can lead to a further appreciation of what those thousands of students marched for this week- education in Ireland. As Trinity College alum, Oscar Wilde himself once wrote “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.” This sentiment, echoed in the valiant steps of Irish students this week, will hopefully live on in the continued offering of free education to all those in the nation- the nation which many of us studying abroad reminisce about everyday.