Features writer Calum McKeown, a Scottish student from Strathclyde University Glasgow, gives his initial experience of his year on Erasmus in UCD. Arguing the friendships made, opportunities to travel a whole new country, and even the different academic courses available makes an a Erasmus a year well spent.
I’ve been studying in Dublin for just over four weeks now. This isn’t a long time yet I’ve already made strong attachments to the people, culture and most of all, the city; an emotional attachment which surprisingly no one could have prepared me for and one which I imagine will make the numerous farewells extremely difficult. Since its inception in 1987, the Erasmus+ plus programme has placed emphasis on students accessing both opportunity and learning in another European country. It works using three easy steps; gain a second family, gain new friends and become a local.
“I’ve already made strong attachments to the people, culture and most of all, the city”
My choice to study at University College Dublin was easy. Being a Scot, means that some way down the line there is family heritage here, but also it helps to have a passion for Guinness, (aka “the black stuff”). On an unrelated note, I’m told that Guinness in fact makes your hair turn a darker; a usefully useless tip (that may or may not have an substantive backing)! So, after making my choice and having signed all the necessary paperwork, I packed some belongings into a holdall and headed off for Ireland – easy.
Well almost. See, the truth is, the Erasmus experience does not come easy at first. The few weeks prior to heading out to Dublin had been busy: prioritising lists, flights, and accommodation so much so that nothing would prepare me for what was about to happen when I eventually boarded the flight. “The parent send-off” at the airport and leaving home for the first time was always going to be a huge personal challenge. From the car journey to departure gate there was a game of careful seating and glances rather than words; avoiding eye-contact at all costs. And you guessed it, then came the tears, hugs and goodbyes. Less than one hour into my semester abroad I sensed the year was going to be a learning curve with a steep uphill struggle.
“The parent send-off” at the airport and leaving home for the first time was always going to be a huge personal challenge”
Following the initial period of host-family introductions, locating UCD and general settling in, my confidence in myself grew, and I began to settle in. The city became a list of endless opportunities. Being a very friendly city I found the streets to be bustling with a large number of tourists and students. I read only the other week in the Irish Times that the Erasmus scheme brings 7,200 students to study or work in Ireland annually, contributing an extra €14 million each year to the national economy. In an ever-increasing globalised world, amidst deep economic uncertainties, surely students learning from and interacting with other cultures abroad provides more pros than cons?
Second to the location and setting of what becomes a new home for a year are the people and the friendships you make. I found university classes function just as well socially as academically. Through my classes my knowledge of Irish political and social history has improved giving me and my fellow classmates opportunities to investigate and research key topics of interest, such as the Easter Rising of 1916. As a political science student my courses have varied slightly from those in Glasgow yet new courses in business have provided new angles to my dissertation research. In addition I was able to pursue humanities courses unavailable at Strathclyde University. In particular those which focused on the Irish economy and politics, so I found the Erasmus allows that opportunity to study courses abroad your home uni doesn’t offer. Exposure to these new courses has opened up new avenues such as being invited to a lecture by Art O’Leary, secretary-general to the Irish President. This lecture brought me into contact with influential figures in politics and provided me with further lines of enquiry for my dissertation but also contacts for future work in this field perhaps.
During my first week there were a vast array of orientation events; from movie nights to ceilis. Being an Erasmus student requires a certain amount of bravery. Suddenly, you are faced with a completely unknown environment, with new transport and buildings. Who would have guessed that me taking part in an organised walking tour of Dublin would actually result in me making true lasting friendships? Less than a week had passed and my Facebook friends had doubled, with new friends from all corners of the globe, who I know with a single email would jump at the chance of a beer if I was to fly and visit them, or end up stopping by Dublin in future years.
Yet, ask exchange students what they enjoy doing most in their spare time and I guarantee that the most common answer is: travelling. Life as we know isn’t patient – in a few years you could well find yourself stuck in a routine, work or family commitments; or simply stuck due to insufficient funds. Galway city, Co. Kerry and Northern Ireland are just a flavour of some areas I’ve visited so far.
The Erasmus experience has definitely made a positive contribution academically, professionally and personally. That is not to say it came easily. The options available to me during my year abroad were not handed to me but were the result of maintaining an open mind and attitude, as well as a determination to develop and work hard. For all students out there thinking about taking the plunge, my advice would be to get out there. Take full advantage of the trips, the different classes, and all that’s offered on your doorstep. It’s definitely an experience that should be embraced by all those fortunate enough to have the opportunity. But perhaps like all unfamiliar endeavours requires a fine print: this experience will change your life.
Calum McKeown | Feature Writer