Surviving Erasmus: 5 tips for a stress free exchange
The best part of an Oxford modern languages degree is, arguably, the year abroad. After an onslaught of essays on obscure literary topics and impenetrable translations, we’re released into the wild to speak the languages we have been learning.
However, the part that is often glossed over is organising the year. A balance must be struck between a host of variables: there is location, accommodation and cost to consider before even thinking about what you might do.
After teaching in South America it fell to France to fulfil my hope of studying something which I wouldn’t’t get to do in Oxford. The easiest and cheapest way of doing this is to undertake an Erasmus study exchange. Although Oxford offers few Erasmus options compared to other UK universities, the application process is straight-forward and languages students, of French at least, who want to study usually get a place at available institutions. The experience was one of the most rewarding and eye-opening of my life. However, moments at my Erasmus university (to remain nameless) in Paris were as bewildering as must be the writings of the 16th century Dutch humanist himself.
Hopefully the following tips will be helpful for negotiating what can be a very enriching five months., with some Paris specific info thrown in.
Don’t worry about Paperwork – Every journey starts with three scanned copies and an original; the EU, the benevolent administrator overlord of the Erasmus study and internship schemes is the world’s biggest bureaucracy. Be prepared to wade through forms signing you up to things unnecessarily far in advance. You will read and sign forms knowing that you will probably have to re-do it all later. Just breathe, sign, and scan, as all will be resolved in the end.
Beware Course Registration – as well as the, France is famed for its winding and intricate bureaucracies especially in higher education. The process of ‘inscription aux cours’ amply justifies this reputation. The registration process for courses (not the overall Erasmus registration as described above) was the most stressful and confusing part of the exchange. The university initially instructed me to be in Paris a full two weeks before the official start of classes to register, or most would be full.. This was an unreasonable prospect, so I had to send a friend from college to do it – twice, as the first time the correct person was on a course. I later spent over three weeks traipsing back and forth between professors, the academic office and the international office. My progress was routinely blighted by staff absences and surprise office closures; but also because even some professors did not fully understand the system. Talk to the student who did your exchange the year before or the excellent Oxford Erasmus office.
Expect the unexpected – things are done differently across cultures and I’d have felt cheated if there weren’t any surprises. Some of these were annoying and inconvenient; such as there being little life on campus itself. Others were pleasant such as cheap public transport, the subsidised student cafes (CROUS) all over Paris to which my student card entitled entry and free tickets to really quite good gigs and plays. An Erasmus exchange affords you the possibility of making loads of new international friends, with whom, unlike at home, you are now in the same boat. As an exchange student I met Danes, Australians and literally dozens of Italians, and exploring Paris with them was one of the highlights. I recommend living or hanging out at the ‘Cité Universitaire’ – Paris’s only proper student accommodation campus for internationals.
Seek out and embrace new academic experiences – the best thing about the university itself was studying new things, including economics and sociology. Don’t expect the standard or experience of education to be exactly the same as in the UK: I took some first year courses and the workload is significantly less (which was amazing) than at home, with slightly more contact hours. The French system is tutor-led, with weekly learning split between a punishingly long three-hour lecture and a slightly shorter ‘directed workshop’, essentially a class.These classes can sometimes be hit and miss, which is exacerbated by their Olympian length and their being in French. One Erasmus comrade at the Sorbonne found this combination particularly draining: “Compared to Oxford, the Sorbonne was a bit like the worst class you had in sixth form, made tipsy with fatigue from the neon lights and the constant gymnastic effort of actually understanding what the hell the teacher was going on about. In effect: fatiguant’’. Steel yourself, remember it doesn’t’ count for your degree, and get involved. Also, don’t worry if your marks are initially disappointing, as the French essay style, or dissertation, is fiddly and takes getting used to. Professors at my university were happy to make adjustments for foreign students, so don’t suffer in confused silence.
Don’t take it personally. This will vary between countries but, in France, the students are notoriously laissez-faire about their international guests and, to be fair, each other. Parisians tend to live at home for their studies so there is less of a community feel and classes disperse immediately. Friends have to be made differently, such as language meet-ups or events through the Erasmus Facebook pages (an essential group for nights out and parties). French friends can be made and from experience the best bet is a part time job or volunteering work. Check out Maison de solidarité for volunteering opportunities and the website Meet-up for language exchanges and clubs.
Erasmus is a fantastic way of studying new things and meeting new people, and the system, for all its pitfalls, is actually a well-oiled machine getting hundreds of thousands of students through each year. The grant is a huge help and we are lucky to get it. From Cork to Bratislava, each exchange will be different but, as long as you don’t stress about the paperwork and improvise when necessary, it will be an amazing experience.