How to Survive Your First Erasmus Exchange

How to Survive Your Erasmus Exchange

This has nothing to do with my current adventures but might be of value to some of my readers who are students or have friends or relatives that are. I am talking studying abroad, or Erasmus exchange to be more precise. I am passionate about all things travel and a firm believer in it being the best teacher there is. Nowhere will you learn more about the world and yourself than when you travel.

How to Survive Your First Erasmus Exchange

And the stories that you have to have a lot of money to traveland you are not safe if you do it alone are just that, myths. When you can, take the chance to travel and that goes especially during studies. It is an entirely different experience to regular travel and when you hear people raving about their Erasmus or worldwide exchange, it is for a very good reason. It is indeed life-changing and eye-opening. But it is also tremendously scary and to some extent takes some bravery.

The other day, I was contacted by one of you lovely readers for any tips on the Netherlands I might have. I had none (or maybe just the general festivities and cities to hit up) since I have not been there myself (but seriously should). Instead, I had tons of tips on being an Erasmus student and on studying abroad. Since my points are valid for all prospective and current Erasmus students, I won’t keep them from all of you to read for yourself or share with others. Let’s spread the travel bug and build more confidence! Travel is the best educator and to combine that with higher studies is just pure gold, if you ask me.

How to Survive Your Erasmus Exchange

[blockquote]Dear Erasmus student,[/blockquote]

You must be terribly excited! This is going to be your great life-changing experience! You will be far away from your parents, live in your own little place, work through all of this paperwork to get accepted and then apply some more for scholarships, limited student accommodation, courses and sometimes even coveted extracurricular student trips! Sounds like a lot of fun? No, I didn’t think so. Naturally, you are worried and I was too. Wait, I wasn’t worried. I was panicking.

I made a mental list of all the things that could go wrong during an Erasmus exchange, such as embarrassing myself in front of all my fellow international students while wearing pyjamas with teddy slippers during a presentation (I never even owned those, but I guess you can add a fear of fashion crimes to the list). Oh wait, I was worried about that without even going abroad. So, I sought help at my international office. A lot. They even referred me to a student who had been there before just to get me off their backs and that was just the right thing to do.

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Worrying, I Know

She had been at the exact same universities as I was coming from and where I was going to, she had been an awkward introvert herself according to her own statements and seemed like such an inspiration to me. Full of radiating passion, a new sense of style and a boost in confidence. I needed that! What I did, accordingly, was to try out her main advice she shared with me. I started wearing miniskirts. You see, our exchange university was in Preston, England, and British girls in the area had developed quite the remarkable skill of wearing the skimpiest clothes during the worst weather just so they can look hot and keep the cloakroom coins for shots to warm them from within.

I was warned of the crassest scenes during my studies abroad and shown pictures to prepare me. I was in for some serious wardrobe makeover and since dedication is my second name, I ditched the jeans for a trial week and wore my dusty pink miniskirts. One time a car nearly crashed into a post because of it (and I don’t even have the greatest legs to show for). I guess I never realised how insanely fashion backward my home town was. Aside from being a walking crime scene, the weather was growing cold and I was doubtful whether I could pull this off. English winters can be harsh. But once I saw that fashion in Northern England was adopted straight out of a magazine or was neglected entirely and traded for a comfortable trainer outfit, I learnt that nobody really bothered about looks. It was refreshing. No near car crashes this time. And I donned some warm sweaters and big coats.

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Be Like Madonna – Reinvent Yourself during Your Erasmus Exchange but Be Yourself

And with the newfound freedom to wear whatever I wanted, I realised that even so I could do whatever I wanted and be whoever I wanted to be. The joy in experiencing an exchange abroad is that you have so many benefits that will change your life profoundly, whether you realise it at that time or not. The only condition is to allow it to happen. Don’t come with a predefined set of expectations and should-bes. You are a foreigner in this country and should seek to learn and adapt accordingly (and not ask others to sell you answers to tests or their homework as happened to me). Don’t give up your personal and cultural identity but integrate and assimilate. It is a fine balance and the more you dive into it, the better you will be at it.

If you do not do it, you will end up like a friend I made and quickly lost during my exchange. She was from Belgium and she hated everything. Whenever she wasn’t at uni and complaining about everyone in our courses being Chinese and making her life incredibly hard (most of our fellow students spoke English only at a very basic level), she locked herself into her room and listened to sad Carla Bruni songs. She left after three months and instantly cut off everyone she just met. We never heard a peep from her after she gave in to her homesickness and left for good. The last thing I remembered were her racist remarks and her reluctance to dance with even her best friend at a club as she didn’t know the songs (who knows all the songs in clubs anyway?!).

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Be Your Own Manager during Your Study Exchange

Since you are no longer (or at least not temporarily) living at Hotel Mama, you need to look after all the boring household chores yourself. Yes, even – and especially – if you live in a shared accommodation. Don’t be a jerk and expect others to clean up your mess, do all the chores and stock up the fridge for you. It sounds like a ‘duh’ thing to say but until this day I meet so many backpackers who cannot even do these simple. And I’ve had my fair share of flatmates who didn’t even know how to wipe the stove top and used their manicured nails instead (and yes, I did show them). It ultimately comes down to a social co-living and learning to look after yourself. In the end, you might even be a master at ironing all your difficult clothes and tell your mom how she’s doing things wrong and do it better. Yes, an Erasmus exchange can do that.

What else you will have to learn if you don’t want to spend all your money and ruin your health and figure is cooking. No one expects you to be a master chef but making a simple dish that is not pasta and ketchup based goes a long way in keeping your stomach and yourself happy. To be honest, I always refused to learn to cook as a teen as I thought it was a sexist thing (says the person who later turned out to be a massive foodie and is cooking whenever she can) and when I was in England I was soon fed up with ready-made frozen dishes and burgers. So I learnt how to make steak dishes and ultimately cooked whatever I felt like eating. I swear your world will light up like it did for Ratatouille from the same name Disney movie. There are enough easy recipes (try my yummy chokladbollar recipe for the ultimate chocolate fix) and youtube videos out there for you to have absolutely no excuse.

help erasmus exchange

Handle Your Money Smartly during Your Exchange

When you are surrounded by new Erasmus friends you will soon find yourself attending all kinds of parties, trips and international dinners. These will quickly blow a hole in your wallet but since those experiences are the ones you need to make and will fondly remember for a long time, you need to be smart about it to not finish your Erasmus asking for pocket money from your parents. First, you will need to learn how to save up and reduce your spending habits. There are dozens of different ways to save on money without having to live like a monk (check out my 90+ ways to save). Just giving up on one of your vices could help a lot, as an example.

First, why not make a boring excel list during the whole of your Erasmus exchange to write down what and how much you are spending? You’ll be surprised to see the numbers add up and then you can cut down on some areas if you know clearly what you are spending. Don’t just use your credit card all the time as it A) makes you spend more recklessly and B) might come with fees (check with your bank or sign up for a local one). Think about alternatives? Why always eat out on special coupons when you could have a cooking session with friends and split the bill or cook big portions for yourself that you can freeze and reheat throughout the week. Here are some low-cost and simple recipe ideas for you to try out.

help erasmus exchange

Do Your Research for Your Exchange

There are a lot of resources for you to aid you in your first Erasmus exchange. Your first stop should involve the university homepages of both your own and your exchange uni. You will get a good overview over what is offered and what to expect. Then, get in touch with the international offices and ask them for more input, procedures and things you will need to consider (such as housing, living costs, etc). They can help you with applications as well as possible funding from the EU. I, for instance, received a scholarship both for my Erasmus exchange and an international internship and it helped me a lot to not have to worry too much about money.

Remember my Belgian friend? Her main problem was how she coped with change and culture shock. It is perfectly normal to go through phases of hating and loving your stay, but you need to be aware of that in order to conquer it. The most important way to cope with culture shock is to just be open to the experience. Don’t swallow your feelings, but accept and talk/write about them. Make friends, keep at your hobbies and travel. Don’t end up on skype calls every day with people from home while you’re on your study exchange, it will make matters far worse. Try to see how independent you can be and know that it’s completely ok to feel overwhelmed or lonely at times.

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You’re not Alone during Your Erasmus Exchange

Are you down for an exchange? Chances are if you’ve read this far, you are. So if you haven’t applied yet, what is holding you back? Ask your uni about information seminars, check websites and get the ball rolling. Attend the introductory seminars. All of them, even if they literally are about boiling an egg (I thought this was a joke but so many students needed it apparently). You will not only get a better introduction into everything but most importantly, meet people. It is a lot to learn and figure out and thus can be very frustrating but the experience is the best and so worth it. The beauty of Erasmus is that you are never alone and even if you haven’t started yet, you can already get in touch with people like I did. In our age of social media you can join facebook groups and connect with people that are in the same boat as you. You will discover that there are students out there even more worried than you are, that are less privileged or really confident and almost cocky.

Voice your questions, doubts and share your own findings. And if you are the type of person who likes to reflect on their experiences, why not start a private blog, make a scrapbook or simply keep posting about your new life on facebook and Co (while you’re there, why not give my page a ‘like’ as well?). This way you will span a bridge between your old and new life and engage people from both and create memories that last and can be viewed later. Just don’t store them away once you are back home from your Erasmus exchange. Your adventures are not an isolated part within your life, they will shape you and you should embrace them. And you will have a blast!

Yours truly,
Annemarie

Now over to you. What are your thoughts on study exchanges in general and Erasmus exchange in particular? Have you done them and if so, how was it? If not, how do you picture them and would you like to do it?

How to Survive Your Erasmus Exchange

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Comments

  1. Reply

    Love your article!
    Mainly because I’m an Erasmus in England, as well, and been through this whole process. Although I have made my research,( that because I waited a lifetime to study in the UK and also because the Erasmus paperwork takes forever) I haven’t been able to follow any of the steps that I had prepared. When I came here everything was a storm and probably one of my advises is to go with it.
    I found new people, new things in a totally different manner that I was used to. And that thought me to just take things as they come, among many others.
    I have left only three more months out of nine to enjoy it, and I don’t look forward to it. I would just like to thank you for this article, it was fun to read and see that people have gone through the same things before me. And also I would like to ask you, how was your post-Erasmus experience? How did you adapt after?
    All the best!

    1. Reply

      Hi Amalia,
      Thank you so much. I am very happy you liked my article. And I can totally relate, the Erasmus stuff does take forever but I am alsways surprised to still see a lot of people do it and have no clue but lots of expectations. Not a good idea. And you’re right, research helps to steady yourself in advance but then you will be overwhelmed anyway and the key is to just be open to it. I would have neer thought I’d learn more about Chinese people than Brits. It made for a culture shock I hadn’t anticipated. And I am so excited for you that you are currently still in your exchange. I found that three months before I left, it got even more exciting as I felt more confident, ahd more friends and more time (and better weather) to go out and explore. Sadly, it is alo the time when most people start to leave but that is just a part of it.
      How did I cope afterwards? Well, there will be a big reverse culture shock, which I also wrote about. Before you leave, you will be quite sad and don’t want to meet new people but you will also get used to saying goodbye. The weird thing, however, comes when you are back home. It will all seem so very different and everyone seems to have changed and cannot understand the change you yourself have been through. They will bombard you with questions and I wasn’t really eager to tell as I first wanted to settle in. But when you then want to share your stories, people don’t really care as they cannot relate. It will feel lonely and you will glorify your exchange counrty. That’s normal. And you might lose some friends because you’ve changed (or have grown and become more ‘you’, which is more likely). So the key is to stay in touch with old friends but also settle in and treasure the whole experience. It will have taught you so much!

  2. Reply

    Thank you so much for your answer! I can almost feel the end coming, as I only have 8 weeks left (yes, I count them in weeks so it seems longer) and also is quite frustrating because of the exam session and the fact that now, when it’s really nice outside, we have too little time to explore or spend together.
    Your blog is very helpful, thanks again!

    1. Reply

      Hi Amalia, I’m happy to hear from you again. It’s great that you have enjoyed yourself. I told you it would be awesome!^^
      And yeah, the end is always a downside and it’s oming sooner than you think and hover over your experience. When I studied abroad, I couldn’t do aything the last month as I had to write exams and my thesis and I even had to go back 3 weeks earlier to start my semester at home. No break whatsoever. I hope you are still able to take some time off or travel a little after exams are over. Make the most of it! :)

    • Jenny
    • 25/01/2017
    Reply

    Hi, I really liked your article.
    I am about to leave my application for Erasmus Exchange for Germany, but I’m having second thoughts about it.
    I’m super excited, but also terrified:
    How can I live on my own, when the longest time I’ve been away from my family is one week? What if I run out of money? What if I don’t pass my courses at the University? What if I don’t make any friends and end up being alone 5 months and cry myself to sleep every night?
    Did you have any thoughts like that before you exchange and how did you managed them? I’ve tried to speak about this with my closest ones, and they all say maybe I shouldn’t apply this year. Too bad, this is my pretty much my last chance. I am panicking!

    1. Reply

      Hi Jenny! I totally feel ya. I know I had SOOOOO many worries before I left. I was freaking out occasionally at random points throughout the day. The application and waiting took nearly a year so there was a lot of time for second thoughts and doubts. But you know what? Don’t give in. This is just your fear of the unknown. That’s fine. You are not alone! I went to my international coordinator and asked her if she could help me get in touch with former exchange students at my uni who I could ask all my questions and share my worries with. That helped tremendously. Even better if they have been at your new university themselves, they can give you all kinds of insider pointers. Don’t be ashamed to ask for tips or help.

      And then ask yourself, what is the worst thing that could possibly happen? You fail as the worst student in all of history, nobody likes you at all and you will starve because you wasted all your money. Likely? I don’t think so. (Trust me, that’s not going to happen.) Exchange programs are designed to help students learn about foreign cultures, their classes do not aim at failing a couple of students (as ‘native’ studies occasionally might). You will have contact persons at both your home and exchange university who will be there for you if you have questions. German universities can be harder than those of some other countries, but Germans are not terrible people.

      The worst part is actually the worrying. I’m not gonna lie, studying abroad is bost the best thing that can happen to you but it will also bring about some pretty bad times. That’s part of the package of experiencing foreign cultures. Before I went to study in England, I devoured anthrological books about the British. I was fully prepared – or so I thought. In the end, I rarely met locals, mostly foreign people and that’s where I had some terrible culture shock eye-opening moments. You will grabble with colliding world views but they will enrich your understanding of the world, of how people think, of how it can be so frustrating when other people seem rude but in their culture YOU are the rude person (happens with blowing your nose, eye contact, certain gestures, etc.) The key is to be aware of it, culture shock comes in waves, it lifts you up and then lets you down. Rinse and repeat. Everyone goes through that, it’s normal and it’s not terrible.

      You might find yourself crying at times (especially in the beginning and if you miss your family). Crying is not bad either (it might not feel nice but it’s like you never cry at home ever, right?). Maybe you remember that when you were little and your mom dropped you off at kindergarten or even school, you started crying but soon you forgot it all because you had fun and met new friends. It’s kinda like that. You will be surprised how much you can handle, how many things you can do on your own. I learned cooking while abroad because I craved certain food, which I couldn’t buy. So I made it myself. I had never gone on solo trips before I studied abroad. And now I do them all the time! You will make friends from all over the planet! I still visit them when I go to a new country, it’s the best!

      And one more thing: when you’ve taken that step – and it is a pretty big and bold step (so yay you!!) -, you have the freedom to hang with people who inspire you, people that support you and listen without telling you to let go of your dreams. I know your friends and family are worried for you because you are so worried with this. My family didn’t really want to let me go either and kept jokingly telling me to opt out. NEVER! You will regret it, I am super sure of that. It most likely will be the best time of your life. And if not, it will be an experience. And if push comes to shove and you hate it all (please wait for the first wave of culture shock depression to pass), you can always go back. I knew people who did it. But they were really not open to the experience, they expected it to not be fun and that’s when it wasn’t. Ultimately, it’s your own attitude that will decide what to make of this opportunity. Let me know if you have any further questions, I would be glad to talk it out with you. You are NOT alone with your worries.

    • Giada
    • 23/03/2017
    Reply

    Nice to meet you Anne, i am Giada and between few months i will participate in an overseas project, even though here you are just talking about Erasmus, perhaps i can share my worries too. Well, i am going to Taiwan, and it’s my dream place, it’s since three years i want to go there, so when i had won the grant (better saying the application?) i was really happy, but worried because i wanted to try one year -thinking that a similar opportunity will not easily appear again- instead of just six months, mainly because i am really interested in enrolling more courses -i’ve just taken the toefl to be able to study English subjects- about Taiwanese culture. But i think i am afraid, afraid of not staying well there, because i have always travelled in Europe but not in Asia, even thought i have many Asian friends and so i already have some knowledge about Asian culture and i really like it, so perhaps i wouldn’t feel such a stranger there. But i have much fear, fear of feeling alone, not to adapt, not to find good friends, to miss too much my family, not to be able to return back if i don’t stay well there. Well this, the last one, is my biggest fear. What if somebody cannot bear anymore to stay abroad for reasons as depression or other similar reasons?
    But all the rest seems really paradise: going to live in the country of my dreams, where there is much green and beautiful landscapes, where they all say the food is amazing, where all the people are very nice and enjoyable, where i will have a single room with a bathroom and nearly for free (because of the grant), where there will be a campus with a gym, a swimming pool, billiards, and so on and along a river. Where all will cost really little. Where there will be bars with cats and night markets with food. And where i’ll be able to enroll really amazing courses about Taiwanese culture!
    But my parents are trying to push me to stay just 6 months, but in my opinion 6 months are too few and i really would like to stay much in my dream place also because i wouldn’t make long-lasting friendships and perhaps find a boyfriend. And, because i wouldn’t be able to enroll many courses and because i want to study well the Chinese language.

    Do you think i will have some problems to adapt? And do you know if someone can go back? I am really worried about it! Perhaps my parents could be right and i should stay only 6 months. What’s your opinion?
    Thanks ^^

    1. Reply

      Hi Giada,
      of course you can share your thoughts and worries on your overseas project plans as well. You’re very welcome to and I am honoured that you are sharing this with me. I can totally understand where you are coming from. So far I have put up travelling in Asia because of the big cultural difference (and though I really want to), but feel like I should just take the plunge. I know so many friends who have travelled Asia, including Taiwan, and they loved it! I see you have taken great pains to get to where you are now and that is amazing! You can be proud of yourself. You went through the tedious application, did the TOEFL course and, I am sure, already have some plans of where to go/what to do, etc. That is a big feat and shows that you really want this. Ironically, it is often the things we really want that make us scared the most. You have to take a chance, you have to leave your comfort zone and you will face so much doubt – from friends, family and yourself. This is all meant well but you have to follow your heart. Still, even if it turns out to be an absolutely horrible experience (and let’s be real, that is very unlikely), you can always cut your losses and see it as a learning experience. There is no right or wrong in this, it is not bad. Also, you will be surprised how fast 6 months will go by! You will maybe need 3 to get accustomed and the next 3 you will start exploring and then, you will dive deeper into the experience, get to know the local culture better and practice the language. That is my experience. I think this is such a great oportunity and I see you are very excited about this.
      Plus, you already have Asian friends and are somewhat familiar with the local culture. If you maintain an open mindset and want to keep learning and broadening your horizon, you will be fine. It’s perfectly natural to go through waves of homesickness or frustration with the new culture and then euphoria of how amazing everything is. (I recommend you check out my post on culture shock, to be prepared. Because you will have some problems adapting, but that is entirely normal and worth it.)
      Ultimately, you have to ask yourself (not other people), do you really want to stay 6 or 12 months? What do you want out of this trip? What would it mean for your happiness, personal development and education? If you have done your research and asked for advice, you need to turn to introspection and see what it is that YOU want. If that is still hard, ask yourself this: will you regret not doing it the best way you could, not taking the opportunity? Would you go the “safe way” or do you want to take a leap of faith?

      Whatever you decide, I wish you all the best and lots of fun and success!! Let me know if you have any more questions.

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