by Kellyanne Parsons
I remember the day I first heard the word ‘Erasmus’. I was sitting in a small lecture hall in Maynooth University for the first time, listening to a French presentation by one of the lecturers from the university. It was a course outline set up for potential undergraduates interested in studying in Maynooth – particularly with the French department. I have always longed to live abroad at some point in my life, and so when I heard that Erasmus offered that opportunity, I was sold. It became a huge part of why I opted to study French, as the idea of becoming fluent in a foreign language while studying in a foreign university for a year sounded like the perfect combination for me. My mind was made up. I was going to do Erasmus and I was going to learn French.
Two and a half years later, I jetted off to Saint-Etienne, a town outside of Lyon in France, with my little life packed into two 20kg bags, two carryon luggage bags, my brothers’ old worn and torn black backpack, and a laptop-carrying leather satchel. For the following ten months this old French mining town became my home… and I absolutely loved my home. The first three weeks of my Erasmus experience were perfect. I partook in a pre- orientation class provided by my host university for two weeks, during which I took French classes in the morning and did cultural activities in the evening. This included visiting museums, going on tours and hiking up the hills of ‘Sainté‘, as it was known to the locals. During these two weeks, which seemed like four, I got to know a huge portion of my Erasmus peers for that semester, I improved phenomenally in my French comprehension skills – witnessing for the first time the benefits of French immersion – and I began to familiarise myself with my new home’s culture and history – as well as its best bars and its buzzing international ‘soiréés‘. As well as this, I deepened my appreciation for the blazing French heat of August, the fruity tang of French red wine, and the scrumptious taste of REAL pain au chocolat – which I subsequently had to give up due to my gluten intolerance. But for those first few weeks, I indulged myself in the fineries of French life – well, the cheap fineries. For my third week before the start of the first semester, I spent it in the beautiful city of Barcelona with people I met just two weeks before. We spent our days lying on the beach, visiting la Sagrada Familia, eating paella and meandering through the streets of the old city. By this time I started to get a sense of both French and Spanish culture. It was my first taste of the backpacker lifestyle and immediately I caught myself plotting my next adventure.
Luckily, my bank account was full with accommodation and travel money that I had saved from working the year before. As a result, my head was peppered with dreams of backpacking and exploring. If I was going to live in continental Europe, I was going to travel… and travel I did. In total, I managed to travel to five different towns all over France, eight different countries, and twelve different international cities. Every college break, I zoomed off to explore yet another country, city and culture. I have stood on top of the Eiffel tour and gazed out at the buzzing life of Paris, seen the almost sad extravagance and beauty of Versailles, have lounged on the beach in the cote d’Azur, have stood outside Mozart’s house in Salzburg, have stood in an Austrian river valley amongst the plunging majesty of the Alps, have rowed a boat in a beautiful icy Slovenian lake, have hiked to watch the sun rise up over snow-capped mountains, have stood beside the Berlin wall and felt its oozing and almost palpable history, have seen the festival of lights blaze throughout the great city of Lyon while cupping a glass of Christmassy mulled wine, have seen the fairytale of Prague, and have tried the mouth-watering Belgian waffles in Brussels. While living briefly from time to time as a backpacker, I was able to see small snippets of different places and cultures while also learning more deeply about French people, culture and la vie en France.
But travelling was not the best part, it was just one of the many parts of the ‘Erasmus experience’. Throughout my Erasmus, every week was an adventure through which I conversed in French with an array of nationalities. The thing about Erasmus is that it’s not just the culture of the land your in that you learn about, it’s the cultures of the other international students that you get to know as well. For me this was an explosion of cultures that stretched across the globe including the hand -gesturing noisy Italians who lived above me, the Spanish chicas next door who taught me how to salsa, the friendly Canadians who were wrongly good at beer pong, and the smell of Chinese food from the first floor. And through this contact with several different languages, nationalities and cultures you begin to understand different ways of life, of thought and of living. I truly think that I took a bit of each of these cultures back with me to Ireland after leaving the others with a small sense of what it means to be Irish.
Together we celebrated birthdays, each time singing happy birthday in French, English, Irish, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. We celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving dinner together, rambled through the French Christmas markets during winter, organised massive snow fights through the streets of Sainté, and spent the spring and summer months listening to French music, with a glass of sangria in our hands and fresh BBQ in our tummies. I cemented friendships, and formed new ones. I am lucky enough to be able to say I have solid friends from all over the world, whom I plan to visit, and who plan to visit me. Because during Erasmus you meet open-minded people like yourself who crave excitement and new experiences and together you create one of the most sociable and memorable years of your life.
But it’s important to also talk about the educational benefits of studying abroad. First and foremost, it gives you an opportunity to study for an extra year in University. That in itself is an educational gain. Furthermore, Erasmus gives you the opportunity to study subjects at degree level that you would normally not be able to study back home. And so I dabbled in history, art, music and cinema classes throughout the year as well as French literature and language modules. I thus broadened my knowledge in different subject areas – learning and accomplishing constantly – and came back from Erasmus content with the fact that I could sit through lectures through the medium of French, write essays and exams in French, and ultimately successfully pass an international year.
But Erasmus also lets you learn something more, something different. It creates education outside education. When you remove yourself from the norm, and place yourself in somewhere unknown, somewhere that is linguistically, geographically and culturally different and somewhere out of the familiar and the safe, you adapt and you learn. You learn if you like living abroad. You learn if you like the culture. You learn about your own personal capability and that you are capable of moving, of leaving and of loving it. It feels so much as though everything is the same when you return except you, because the reality is, if you hadn’t done Erasmus and spent the year doing what you usually do, you wouldn’t have grown or changed as much as you have. It is without a doubt a character-building year full of self discovery and possibility. You return more confident, cultured, pensive, and above all, changed. How you think is, and forever will be, broadened.
I moved back to Ireland on June 1st. However, by the time it was over, I was ready to leave. I stayed in France a month after I finished my last exam to travel, spend time with my friends, and say my goodbyes. I truly felt that I had learned and achieved everything I could, and was starting to look beyond. And as tough as it was to repack my new dazzling life into my two 20kg bags, my two carryon suitcases, my brothers’ worn and torn black backpack and a laptop-carrying satchel, the bright faces that greeted me at the airport upon my arrival, and the taste of a home-cooked meal at home, made it a lot easier.
If I think about how doing Erasmus will affect my future, it has to be in terms of my post-degree planning and how much those plans have changed. Dying to experience something similar to my year abroad, I catch myself planning a summer abroad in America followed by a year of au pairing and working in my beloved France. After that, who knows! For our lucky generation, the world really is our oyster. Not yet ready to let go of Erasmus and life abroad, I sit here thinking of future possibilities and I planning my next ‘move’.
Click here to find out more about Erasmus and Study Abroad opportunities through Maynooth University.