10 tips for both surviving and embracing an Erasmus year in Spain

Erasmus is an amazing opportunity to study abroad in another European country while receiving funding from the EU. I spent my Erasmus year in Madrid, Spain teaching English to children in a primary school, and I had the most amazing year. It has shaped me as a person in so many ways. I can now say I am a more confident person and I can even do my own washing and ironing! Sadly, Erasmus is a scheme that has a rather uncertain future with Brexit around the corner, so I’m here to tell you not only how to survive it, but how to embrace it while it’s still a thing. ‘Cus, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone and all that.

    1. Don’t book your accommodation online. Go and see it first!
      If you are going to be living in these digs for around 9/10 months, they’re going to have to be decent. Imagine booking a place online and paying a reservation fee only to arrive and it still be a building site, and then having to live with no kitchen for your first week, no central heating (the entire time) and worst of all, no WiFi for two weeks. I bet you think I’m joking and that’s a hypothetical situation I’ve just concocted in my head. Well it’s not. It happened to me. Here is some photographic evidence if you still don’t believe me.
    2. Your language skills will only improve if you make the effort.
      If you want to improve your Spanish skills, establish this with every Spanish person you meet when you meet them. If you begin speaking to them in English it will stick. And it’s very awkward and embarrassing to then switch languages half way through knowing a person. Depending on where you are in Spain, there may be a lot of temptation to just speak English. Which is fine if that’s what you want to do, but in my case I was there to improve my Spanish, and sometimes you have to push yourself and make extra effort to do so. If you don’t know any Spanish people you can speak to, research where your local intercambio (language exchange) takes place. These are a fun, relaxed way to practice your language skills, and it’s not intimidating as everyone there is in the same boat!
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    3. If you’re a fussy eater, you might want to stock your suitcase full of supernoodles.
      The food in supermarkets is not the same as at home. The bacon is pre-cooked for you to reheat, ensalada rusa (russian salad) is not the same as coleslaw (do not make this mistake) and if you’re a fan of fajita nights they don’t sell sour cream ANYWHERE. Literally, nowhere. Aside from this, Spanish food is actually really tasty. Try not to stick to just what you’d eat at home, you’re only there for a short time, try something new!
    4. While we’re on the topic of food, I hope you like jamón (ham).
      If you don’t, you should probably just go home. The Spanish are obsessed with ham, and they eat it in all forms, shapes and sizes. Where I was in Madrid, there were even jamón museums. It is really tasty, though, it’s definitely a fad I was able to get on board with.
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    5. Spanish bureaucracy is, to put it straight, a nightmare.
      Getting your documents is a daunting task, I’m not going to lie about it. For some reason in Spain they manage to make everything a lot more complicated than it needs to be. Be aware of the law of ‘falta uno’ (one missing) which refers to the fact that for some reason every time you bring your necessary documents to register for whatever it may be, they will always tell you there is one missing and to come back when you have it. It’s a known phenomenon and it’s incredibly frustrating.
    6. When it’s your birthday, don’t expect everyone to buy you presents. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite.
      At the school I worked in, every time it was someone’s birthday they themselves brought in biscuits, cake, sweets, etc for everyone else. WHY?! Surely they should be the ones being gifted? In Spanish culture, though, the responsibility of celebrating one’s birthday falls on said person. Luckily my birthday was in July after my Erasmus year was over, so I was back home and of course I got presents.
    7. The Spanish have their own concept of time.
      Do not ever take a Spanish person seriously when they ask you to meet them at a certain place at a certain time. Instead, tell them to text you when they’re on their way. They will never be on time. Ever. Spaniards are extremely laid back, to the point where for someone as timely and organised (some may say uptight) as myself, it’s annoying. Spanish time is relative and very vague: mañana is anywhere from 8am-2pm, tarde can last until it’s dark outside, and noche can mean anything from late evening to the early hours of the next morning.
    8. Do not mention Catalonia or the referendum if you don’t want an argument.
      Whether the person is from Catalonia or they’re Spanish, this is a topic that is bound to wind people up. It’s a bit like bringing up the troubles in Northern Ireland with someone you don’t know, you just don’t do it. Unless you’re in the mood for a debate.
    9. Be aware that people will stare at you on public transport.
      Here in Northern Ireland, I’ve come to realise that we’re very private people. We don’t like to know each others business, we stick merely to small talk about the weather and football scores. However in Spain, everyone will watch everything you’re doing. And when you catch them staring, they won’t feel awkward and stop. They’ll continue. And don’t worry if you feel awkward, because they don’t.
    10. Lastly and most importantly, embrace it!
      Moving abroad and experiencing another culture is an amazing opportunity that you may not get again, so grab it with both hands and enjoy every second. Be aware of the little things I’ve pointed out, but also embrace your own culture shock – everyone will make their own observations when living in a foreign environment. The year will be what you make of it, so don’t shy away from the opportunity. This ‘throw yourself into it’ mentality I picked up on my year abroad is probably the reason I took the plunge and decided to study this course which something completely new to me, and it’s exciting!
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Anna Stewart is an MSc Communication and Public Relations with Advertising student at Ulster University. She can be found on Twitter: @astewart95 and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/anna-stewart-b3127a139/

 

UK versus USA education and culture, the difference across the Atlantic!

In the UK and Ireland, we all have a distinct perception of what college in the U.S. is like, Right?

The parties, the frat houses and the socks and sandals combo – yes it is real!

In general, we aren’t far wrong. But having been there, done that (and bought hundreds of T-shirts) my views have changed and, to be perfectly honest, I prefer it over there!

…and here’s why:

SCHOOL SPIRIT –  

Americans have SO much school spirit! Whether it be a big basketball game or a coffee morning charity event you can’t help but notice everyone wearing the college colours and excessive face paints to show their passion.

People you don’t know or have never met all of a sudden become your best mate just through random events. I LOVED IT!

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WORKLOAD –

I was very surprised by the amount of work! It’s undeniable that the workload in the U.S. is considerably bigger that over here, but the work is definitely worth less of a percentage towards your overall grade.

In other words, if you do badly on an assignment it’s not the end of the world because it’s only worth 10%, unlike our 50% exams at home.

I also had a love/hate relationship with pop quizzes (well more of a hate!).

These are tests at the beginning of class, adding up to a ‘daily grade’, but as long as you’ve done the reading, you’re sorted. These tests also became a godsend because it definitely took the pressure off during midterms and finals – if you did it right, which I certainly learned in second semester.

You do also have to buy the textbook, and I mean ACTUALLY buy it! There’s $100 you’ll never seen again…

GRADING –

Coming from home where it’s considered a miracle to break 70% on your assignments, I arrived in America and suddenly began getting 95% on things. WHAT?!

No matter how many times I got 90%+ on a piece of work, I still always felt like I’d become a genius, destined for Mastermind.

Having said that, one of the nicest adjustments was that Professors in America want a personal relationship with you and to get to know you both inside and outside the classroom. They know your name and not just your ID number and for me that really helped while settling in.

And sometimes, they’ll let you re-do their work if you’re not happy or will offer extra credit so you can boost your grade. Extra credit is literally free marks, just let that sink in for a minute. Free marks?! Completely unheard of at home.

DRINKING – 

Drinking culture is also a huge part of American college life, but because most college students are below the drinking age, a lot of it exists underground — whether that be at house parties, frats, fields, or through the use of fake IDs.

A massive culture shock for me was not being allowed to legally drink or go into pubs and clubs. But to be honest, it was actually nice to not revolve your days around it – like we do at home.

Also, just a heads up – NO ONE in the United States thinks red Solo cups are interesting.

They are seen as the dirty, plastic cups which you spend half of the morning after a party cleaning up and are the ideal beer pong receptacle. But because they are ever-present at American parties, they have made it onto TV and because American college movies are watched everywhere, red Solo cups are now “a thing” abroad. Weird.

 

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HUMOUR AND GENERAL LINGO-

Or should I say ‘humor’…

Sometimes in British humour the jokes on you – Americans cannot grasp that. Plus, we use irony, A LOT.

But when Americans use irony, they will often immediately admit it by adding an unnecessary “just kidding”, even if the statement is outrageous and obviously ironic.       For example, “If you don’t come out tonight, I’m going to shoot you… just kidding.”

Don’t get me wrong, Americans can fully appreciate irony, I just think they don’t feel as comfortable using it on each other in case it causes hurt or anger. Whereas over here, we use sarcasm as both a shield and a weapon. We mercilessly take the hand out of people we like or dislike. And also ourselves, in fact, even more so ourselves!

It’s not so much about having a different sense of humour, but more an all-round different approach to life. Americans are not embarrassed by their emotions and they applaud ambition and openly reward success. It’s an openness that always made me feel slightly guilty and apologetic when their achievements were met with silent appreciation, rather than claps and shouts – we just don’t do that. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary.

A major thing I noticed is how Americans say, “have a nice day” whether they mean it or not. Here we wouldn’t dream of it! I don’t know whether it’s because we don’t want to sound insincere or because we don’t want to celebrate anything too soon.  As bad as it sounds we are so much more pessimistic and expect the worst. Americans are brought up to believe they can be the next president of the United States. Over here we’re told, “Have a plan B, in case things don’t happen for you.”

FOOD

Ah, ONE of America’s greatest assets.

A friend of mine once said “American food means taking everything you learned about moderation and healthiness growing up, and completely ignoring it.” I mean, what’s not to love?

US students can NEVER go hungry, especially if they have an unlimited meal plan, just one swipe away from an all-you-can-eat buffet. Even without a meal plan, you can sometimes use the dining hall for as little as $5, then eat all the food you possibly can and get a box to go for later.

This is very unlike the UK and Ireland where, by week 12 you’re living off beans on toast because you’ve almost completely run out of your loan (and by almost I mean ‘ran out two months ago’).

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I could talk ALL DAY about the differences between here and the U.S.

I think it’s so important that each of us get the chance to experience different cultures and interact with different people at some stage in our lives. It’ll definitely change how we see things and if you’re in anyway like me, how you say things…

and so on that note,

Have a nice day y’all!

 

Lauren Kearns is a final year BSc Communication, Advertising and Marketing student at Ulster University, Jordanstown. You can reach her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/ lauren-kearns-90819710b

Great things never come from comfort zones – Study USA!

Imagine this – you wake up one morning, you’re lying in a strange bed, in a strange room, in a strange country, all alone. Scary right?

Wrong, it’s the exact opposite!

…And I’m here to tell you why.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I hate ordinary. I hate getting up every day, doing the same thing, going to the same places and having the same experiences. So that’s why last year I swapped my standard, routine and completely average student life in Belfast for an unforgettable year studying abroad in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Where do I even begin? *gulps to hold back tears*

The BEST thing about my year away was the people that I met. If any of you are reading this you’ll know exactly who you are!

Before I left I never imagined myself being in the situations I was in and getting the opportunity to meet the most amazing people. Arriving in the U.S. I was the ‘foreigner’, a strange thought but true. I thought I would be the weird one, the one who stood out – but I was wrong.

There are people from all over the world at college in America. Some of my best friends came from completely different continents, and learning about them and their culture made daily life so much more interesting.

My year away was a whirlwind to say the least. I got to experience some AMAZING American events, I felt like a fully-fledged citizen after a while!

I was there for the most controversial U.S Presidential Election (that was something else – to say the least!) American Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, Christmas in NYC and Spring Break in Canada. I mean come on, who wouldn’t cut off their left arm for that?

 

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Having said that, we definitely celebrated some things the Irish way. A blurry pub crawl hitting every Irish bar in Philly was a 21st birthday not to be forgotten and running through the streets in Boston on St. Patricks day with face paint and flags makes me cringe, smile and cry all at the same time!

It was only then I realised, adventure is the best way to learn. Why not do everything while we’re young?

Don’t get me wrong, there are days where reality hits, and it hits HARD.

When the rain and snow is beating off the library window and you’re up to your eyes in deadlines and textbooks. You suddenly realise you’re 3000 miles away and you can’t just pop home for a cup of tea, wheaten bread or an infamous Sunday roast.

But that’s O.K.

Having had a couple of those days myself I can safely say for every bad day there are 30 great ones. Do not let yourself be put down, have a break, take a walk and go again.

As I write this, my heart is broken. My year is over and I have had to leave my ‘home’ and best friends to come back to my home and best friends. Not many people can say that.

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I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones, the chance to live and study in America doesn’t come around very often.

It was only when I returned home that I realised how life-changing the year was. I had seen America’s true colours, my eyes had been opened and I had changed indefinitely.

Before I finish, I’d like to leave a few tips for anyone considering studying or doing placement/ post-grad work abroad.

My ‘wish I knew before going away’ Tips

  1. You don’t need that extra suitcase
  2. You won’t drink a good cup of tea all year
  3. Hope for the best but plan for the worst
  4. Study/Work abroad is an emotional cocktail (not a rollercoaster)
  5. Learn how to read a map and navigate without your iPhone.
  6. Forget yourself in a new country and make memories, leave the FOMO at home.
  7. Join a club, whether it’s a sports team or cheerleading or chess. You’ll meet so many people and it’s a great way to get involved!
  8. Sleep is for the weak, say yes to EVERY adventure (even if it is going for Dunkin at 4am).
  9. Reverse culture shock is worse than initial culture shock, prepare yourself.

 

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What have you got to lose?

‘It’s better to look back on life and say “I can’t believe I did that…” than to look back and say “I wish I did that…”’

 

Lauren Kearns is a final year BSc in Communication, Advertising and Marketing student at Ulster University, Jordanstown. You can reach her on LinkedIn at  https://www.linkedin.com/in/ lauren-kearns-90819710b