When good opportunities arise, you shouldn’t let them pass you by, right? I know I didn’t. Well, at least when it came to getting an Erasmus scholarship in another country. I’ll give you a bonus life lesson now, which took me a while to truly understand—pretty much everything in life is connected to people. That is if you don’t live on a remote island where your only neighbors are a few hundred (thousand) bunnies.
I was lucky enough to earn two Erasmus scholarships during my six years of university—three months in France with a practice scholarship and nine months in Belgium with a study scholarship (I basically did my 5th year there). Man…those were the days.
Approach cultural differences with empathy
When it’s your first time in a particular country, there is always a culture shock to varying degrees, depending on how innately flexible you are toward change in general. I remember my first days in France, which was the first time I lived for a few months in another country, completely alone and had to handle myself in a different language all the time. Add to that not knowing what my living arrangements would be, what I’d eat, how the people behave, what bus to take and so on. But I soon learned that the food is really good, buses have a schedule and respect it too, the people are actually quite nice (either that or I’ve been really lucky). Plus, if you start playing a bit of ‘monkey see monkey do,’ you slowly integrate and even get to feel rather comfortable.
Whether it was learning about their culinary preferences, becoming friends with colleagues and observing their lifestyle and routine, I can honestly say I became more empathetic and considerate by witnessing the way other fellow humans go about their lives. Resilience is another thing you can build when you need to stretch your grant until the end of the month or quickly find an alternative to not having mobile data in the middle of a foreign city. Figuring out the best possible decisions you can make by taking into account the resources you have, at any given moment, while being outside of your comfort zone, is something that requires some serious critical thinking skills. And that is something you will surely consolidate during an Erasmus experience (pretty much every day you leave the house).
One guaranteed way to become grateful for your own life is to go to a country that is not as well-off as the one you come from. (I didn’t do this, but my friend did.) This is not to say that you can’t be grateful in a country with a high standard of living, of course. As a foreigner however, it can be quite humbling to observe the struggles of an underprivileged colleague—how much they had to study to get into University and succeed, how they eat food their mom sent to them from miles away. When sharing a dorm room with local students, you start grasping the difficulties these families go through, the quality of life and struggles they encounter.
As unpleasant as it may sound, there is value in witnessing the struggles and challenges other people face, and maybe even share the burden for a little while. I’m not suggesting to put your life in danger or anything like that, but maybe do some volunteer work for a social cause you found out about or cook for yourself even though you are tired and can afford to eat out. Having a moderately hard time even briefly, can do wonders for your perception, sense of self, gratitude levels and who knows, maybe even spark some motivation to help the less fortunate, or strive to become a better human and improve what you can, where and when you can.
It’s about you, not just your grades
I became friends with a colleague during my time in Belgium and I visited her place one weekend. I met her parents and found out she had failed some exams and had to repeat a year. Despite the reaction I would have expected (due to my upbringing), her family and teachers had been supportive and helped her out during that year, instead of seeing her as “less than.”
The moral of the story, through my eyes, is this: your study years, your grades, and widely celebrated achievements don’t define you as a person. What you do with your knowledge, experience and given circumstances is what builds your character and determines how you live your life. I’m not diminishing the immense value my Erasmus experiences had for my academic and professional paths. However, I would ask people to look past conventions and measurements, to use their own situation (Erasmus or not) and make the most out of the things that seem to truly matter in the end—moments, people and memories.
Say yes to challenges in order to grow
I don’t think I can fit in this article all the words needed to express how much these two Erasmus grants helped me grow, on all fronts. I got to practice and improve my French, participated in practical and academic activities in my field of study, gathered a great level of knowledge and skills for my future profession, interacted with people of all ages and backgrounds, traveled within and outside of those two countries, made friends and collected a bunch of memories that are some of the best so far. I have grown as a person, a student, and a friend.
It takes courage to go by yourself to a whole new country, for months, to handle your own money, use your existing knowledge in a new environment, interact with foreigners, study and pass exams in a different language. It is not easy, but it is 100% worth it. When I look back and realize how strong I became, how I’ve managed to do something challenging but also rewarding, the priceless memories I have, I would totally do it again. And again.
Travel if you can
Traveling is one of the best ways to learn, unlearn and relearn about life. Why not take a few steps outside your circle and discover where life takes you, what you learn, how you grow and what makes your soul smile.
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Photo: Ethan Shi via Unsplash; Timo Stern via Unsplash