BEFORE YOU LEAVE
1) Be prepared
Before you leave to spend your time abroad, you should do your best to inform yourself about what will await you in your host country and at your host university or work placement, so that you do not get any nasty surprises when you arrive. You may have taken some cultural studies classes based on your future host country and may already have a fairly good idea of how society works there. Nonetheless, you will need to do some independent research on the specific region. Nowadays, the internet is a great tool for finding information about the norms in societies around the world. Think about the norms and values that drive your characteristic behavior and try to find out how typical these are in your future host country (e.g. What is considered polite? How important is punctuality? Are there any taboo conversation topics to avoid? What role does religion play in society?). Also consider practical aspects such as the weather, suitable dress, transport, foods, or living conditions. You may also be able to book an appointment to talk with a teacher who originally comes from your future host country who will be able to give you more insight into what to expect.
If you're going to study, be aware that life as a student may also be different from what you’re used to at your home university. Read through your future host university’s website or prospectus to find out about things like the workload per course, reading lists, the relationship between students and lecturers, attendance and assessment regulations, extra-curricular clubs and activities, and the facilities available. It may also be useful to read reports by students who previously attended your host university or to talk with them in person. Ask your International Office or departmental coordinator for their names and contact details well in advance.
2) Get your paperwork organized
Make sure you complete and submit all of the relevant forms and documents on time. This will start with things like your application for the work placement or host university (which will probably need to be sent off in April if you’re going in September) and your work contract or learning agreement (which needs to be agreed with the departmental coordinator at your home university before you leave). There may be extra forms to fill in to apply for accommodation – make sure you meet all the deadlines, otherwise you might not be allocated anywhere to live! You will also need to sort out the required insurance cover and your finances, and it may be a good idea to make photocopies of important documents (e.g. passport, health insurance certificate) and passport photos to take with you. Although you will probably be able to open a student bank account in your host country, you might want to inform yourself about other options; some credit card companies, for example, offer cards that allow you to get money from ATM cash machines anywhere in Europe for free.
Some things will need to be finalised soon after you arrive, for example rental contracts, university registration, and learning agreements. Make a list of the people you will need to contact at the start of your stay to sort these things out – include their full name, address, email address and telephone number (which will be particularly helpful if you cannot find their office!) You might also want to print out maps or look up bus timetables, etc. so that you can reach these people without too much difficulty. Put the name and phone number of your contact person at your home university on your list, too, in case you have any urgent problems or questions.
3) Plan the practicalities
Think about practical things that will be important at the start of your stay and find out how/where you can organize these things. For example, how will you get from the airport / train station to your accommodation? You might want to book a hostel for the night you arrive, just in case your accommodation cannot be worked out immediately, or you might want to find out where you can buy phone cards or SIM cards so that you can call home on your first night. Alongside organizing paperwork and travel arrangements, think carefully about things you’ll need to pack for your stay abroad (and make another list!). As well as appropriate clothing and standard toiletries, you will probably also want to take the following: stationery, adaptor plugs, a USB flash-drive or similar, a camera, music, basic medicine/first aid supplies, sanitary items, basic home linens, and enough cash to get you through the first couple of days. Note that most students pack too much! Check the weight-limits for your luggage if you are flying, and pack wisely to avoid expensive charges for too heavy suitcases and having to carry a heavy suitcase with you! If necessary, you could also pack a separate box of items and have a family member or friend send them to you once you have arrived.
If there is prescription medication you need to take for a chronic condition, talk to your doctor at home well in advance to see if you can be prescribed enough medication for your whole stay. Make sure you inform yourself about the regulations for importing medication into your future host country. You may also want to ask your doctor for a letter explaining your illness and medication plan (in English or the language of your host country where possible), and don’t forget to register with a doctor as soon as possible in your host country, making sure to give them all the information you have from your home doctor. In order to register with a doctor, you may need to take proof that you have medical insurance; depending on the country, you might need a European Health Insurance Card – this is often on the reverse of your health insurance card from your normal insurance in your home country.
If there are people at home you think you’re going to miss in particular, talk with them about how you can keep in touch. You may want, for example, to set fixed days/times to phone them (Sunday afternoons often work well). You could also set up a Skype group to enable video chats, or create a mailing list to send emails to about your adventures to your close friends!
WHILST YOU’RE ABROAD
4) Be aware of culture shock
No matter how long you’ve been learning a language for, how much you know about your host country, or how excited you are about living abroad, it is likely that you may nonetheless suffer culture shock and homesickness. Almost everyone is affected by culture shock when they move to another country, although some people are affected more severely than others. To be able to make the most of your stay abroad despite culture shock, it is important that you understand what it is and how to tackle it effectively. Symptoms can range from feeling a bit sad and frustrated, to feeling angry and mildly depressed. You may experience feelings of disappointment in yourself, anxiety about activities you’ve done plenty of times before, loneliness, or a sense of helplessness. Some people also suffer from physical symptoms such as insomnia, headaches, or a lack of appetite. If you feel like this, do not worry too much – it is perfectly normal to have such emotional reactions to a new culture. You’ll see below that there are certain common phases of culture shock, and these negative emotions will soon pass. If you feel very depressed over a longer period of time, you should talk to a counsellor or doctor.
The stages of culture shock are often described as the following:
- Cultural astonishment: you feel excited about your new environment and can’t wait to explore all of the new and interesting aspects of your host country. (May last days/weeks)
- Cultural Stress: small problems or hiccups start to cause frustration; your initial enthusiasm gives way to tiredness and feelings of isolation, and you are irritated by differences to your home culture, making you long for home, i.e. homesickness. (May last weeks/months)
- Cultural Adjustment: you begin to develop strategies to handle tricky situations and cultural differences, and begin to understand them, which usually leads to motivation to adapt to certain aspects of local culture, but this also involves effort on your part. (May last a month)
- Cultural Acceptance & Integration: you accept and embrace cultural differences, feel comfortable and enjoy living in the new country, and may even want to stay longer! You may begin to see your home country in a new light. (May last months, if not forever!)
If you recognise that you are going through “cultural stress” or “cultural adjustment”, take care of yourself; eat well, sleep well, and plan in time to relax on your own. Try to do some physical activity each week, and get out in the fresh air. Also, think about things which have cheered you up in the past and use these to make yourself feel better, e.g. a walk in the park, hot chocolate with marshmallows, a certain film, playing computer games, a hot bath. It may also help to talk to other friends who are currently studying abroad, as they will understand best how you are feeling. Although it seems counter-intuitive, you may want to cut down on your contact with your friends and family from home, which can increase feelings of homesickness and your negative emotions towards your host country.
5) Get involved
One of the easiest ways to handle the emotional roller-coaster ride of culture shock, and in general to make the best of your time abroad, is to go out and meet new friends, and surround yourself with fun, supportive, like-minded people. In order to do this, you need to get involved in life in your host community. Most universities have Students’ Unions or similar organisations that run lots of clubs and societies based on hobbies and free time activities. These usually cover diverse interests, so there will probably be something to suit your tastes. From prayer groups to ale appreciation societies, from book clubs to first-aid teams, from ballet dancing to rock-climbing clubs, and plenty of different sports teams – this is your chance to find like-minded people and fill up your social calendar. There may also be groups that organise special trips and events for international students, which may provide you with inexpensive ways to explore your new host country. Many universities organise orientation weeks for new and international students, which include campus and city tours, a fair where all the clubs introduce themselves, and lots of parties! Take advantage of these opportunities to make friends and ensure you won’t be lonely or bored during your stay abroad. Try to make friends with the natives, and not only other exchange students – particularly those from your home country! While it may be scary chatting to native speakers, most of them probably won’t mind (or even notice!) if you make a few mistakes; they’ll just find it interesting to talk to someone from another country! They definitely won’t be offended if your language skills aren’t perfect yet! Most of them probably can’t even speak another language! And remember: the freshers students may be native speakers, but they are new to the university just like you, so they’ll probably be pleased if you take the initiative to strike up a conversation! As well as joining societies and clubs, you can also make friends in your accommodation or in the classes you attend. Don’t forget to introduce yourselves to your neighbours, and in lessons you can volunteer to work in groups with native students to help you make friends.
Beyond university life you can also find ways to meet people from the local community – for example, getting involved in charity work, joining a theatre group, or going along to regional festivals, etc. One key tip is to always accept invitations. If you decline people’s invitations too often, they will eventually stop inviting you. Even if you don’t really fancy the event you’ve been invited to, go along anyway, as it may turn out to be more fun than you expected, and there may be other people there who are not really interested either – so you’ll have a ready-made topic of conversation! And don’t be afraid of initiating activities, or of inviting people for a coffee, to study together, etc. Most students who have previously gone on Erasmus+ placements say they met friends for life there, but you do need to make a bit of effort for this to happen! If you feel that things are all getting a bit too much, then why not take a weekend away. An stay abroad is also a great opportunity to explore your host country – as a student you usually get good discounts on travel fares if you book in advance. Getting away from your host university for a while will probably help you to clear your head, and travelling around the country has the added bonus of allowing you to experience even more of the life, culture and society in your host country!
6) Let your experience change you
Living in another country is a brilliant opportunity for you to develop as an individual beyond the constraints of your home environment. Even if you suffer from slight culture shock, overcoming the negative emotions will give you strength of character and more confidence to face challenges life may hold in store. Most students report that they come back from their time abroad as a different person, with a new outlook on life, broadened horizons, and heightened self-awareness. Studying at another university allows you to specialize in a certain area or explore whole new areas within your degree subject. There will no doubt be courses that would not be available to you at your home university, you may have the chance to work with leading experts in your field, and the facilities at your host university may also be better than at your home university. All of these factors enable you to develop skills and insight that you otherwise would not have encountered. Not everyone is lucky enough to have these opportunities, so try to get the most out of the experience.
Remember that the Erasmus+ study abroad programme is not just another way to collect certificates and credits, but that you are one of a select number of students chosen as ambassadors from your country to further international cooperation and exchange in the academic arena. Be proud of your achievements and experiences, and make them part of who you are as a student. Alongside the academic element, you may also have the chance to try out new hobbies and join in activities which are not offered at your home university. You have the chance to discover extra-curricular pursuits which really interest you, to develop new abilities, and to enjoy once in a lifetime events. You may develop a new passion for sports or activities you had not heard of before, and will probably discover new facets of your personality that evolve as you broaden your life experience in a new country.
Everyone’s Erasmus+ experience is individual, but you will reap enormous rewards if you follow these tips for making the most your stay.