Lessons from a semester abroad
Claire O’Brien says the challenges presented by Erasmus are far outweighed by the benefits of time spent abroad
It’s not uncommon to see Dutch people eating and drinking outside well into the colder months and plans are rarely changed due to the weather. Above: patrons sit outside a cafe in Tilburg. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images
Erasmus was something I never particularly wanted to do, it was a compulsory aspect of my course and for the entire year leading up to the exchange, I continually plotted ways to get out of the study abroad programme.
However, once arriving in Tilburg, a small city in the south of the Netherlands, I immediately fell in love with the city and its international community.
The next semester would be full of unforgettable experiences and life-long lessons.
The first lesson I learned about Dutch life I learned before I ever left the country: Dutch people are incredibly selective when choosing housemates.
Apartment blocks dedicated to international students sell out rather quickly and while I had intended on getting to the housing website the minute these apartments were available, I did not account for the time difference which, and by the time I logged on the apartments were long gone.
As the summer went on, I began to doubt whether I’d ever make it to the Netherlands. I looked for accommodation everywhere from mainstream Dutch housing websites to student Facebook groups.
Most of my searches were conducted on the ‘Housing Anywhere’ site which is a long-term Airbnb-style service aimed at students who are subletting rooms for a semester.
The basic idea is comparable to Tinder, you look at the rooms you like, you sent a message to the owner, they ignore you and you cry and wonder where you went wrong. It was rejection like I had never felt it before!
In all seriousness, you could have a conversation with someone regarding a room where you’d feel like it was a done deal. But days later you’d receive a message to the tune of ‘Sorry we chose someone else.’
This was a regular occurrence and honestly quite exhausting. Although, I eventually lucked out on Housing Anywhere it is important to note that if you’re looking for accommodation with Dutch students you should try make a connection pretty much straight away.
When I arrived in Tilburg, everything seemed to slot into place. The sun warmed the little Dutch city for weeks upon our arrival in Tilburg whilst the Dutch students promised us it would not last. I’ve often said that Erasmus was like a holiday disguised as a college semester but that first month truly was like a holiday.
Meeting people from every corner of the Globe whilst cycling and partying in the sun was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. It was pure freedom.
If you are considering a semester abroad, go alone. It might be scary and you might get lost and mess up sometimes but you won’t be tied to anyone or anything.
If you travel with a friend from home, it will be too easy to keep to yourselves. The most important part of my time abroad was learning about different cultures and countries from other international students.
This wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t throw myself into every social activity available for those first couple of weeks.
I doubt I would have done this if I had a ready-to-go network of friends to fall back on. For me, this was an important lesson about comfort zones.
Whilst learning about other people and cultures abroad, you learn a lot about your own country. It is widely known that the Netherlands boasts one of the best cycling infrastructures in the world.
The Dutch cycle absolutely everywhere, rain sleet or snow. When telling people from home how much I appreciated the cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands, I was usually met a response like ‘Ah sure isn’t it well for them, we could never have something like that over here.’ In reality, there’s no real reason we couldn’t have a similar infrastructure in Ireland.
The weather in the Netherlands isn’t unlike our own, I’d even go as far to say the Dutch weather is somewhat colder and wetter than Ireland. However, this simply doesn’t phase Dutch people, they’ll put on a raincoat and cycle away.
It’s not uncommon to see Dutch people eating and drinking outside well into the colder months and plans are rarely changed due to the weather.
This lifestyle means that you save a lot of money you might regularly spend on taxis or buses. Whilst abroad, I learned that Irish people are very quick to say ‘I can’t.’ particularly when it comes to major changes.
Many Irish students simply can’t picture themselves cycling to and from college or even bars and nightclubs.
Similarly, a lot of Irish parents would be hesitant to see their young school children cycle to school by themselves.
However, a 2013 study from UNICEF ranked Dutch children as the happiest in the world. While this study took various factors into account, one of the key aspects of this study was the independence Dutch children are afforded from their parents.
While I believe there is a lot to be said for the Erasmus programme, it is not without its’ flaws.
For many courses in UL, Erasmus is compulsory and if you cannot go for whatever reason you must present your case in front of a student status committee.
Whilst many of us had wonderful experiences abroad, this isn’t always possible for everyone. Not everyone in UL, is physically, mentally or financially capable of going abroad and it is unfair for a student to be obligated to articulate why they can’t be sent abroad in front of university employees.
Similarly, it seems that many universities will take on more international students than their city can facilitate.
In Tilburg, many international students arrive without accommodation and don’t find anywhere permanent until late September. As the university apartment blocks can only accommodate one third of the total international students. This leaves a lot of students in the lurk for weeks looking for an alternative place to live.
All in all, Erasmus was an unforgettable and valuable experience for me, and if I could wake up on the 18th August 2016 and relive it, I’d be gone in a heartbeat.