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Thinking about studying abroad? Learn more from students who've just done that. Ruth Buckley (Sydney), Jason McGoldrick (Shantou), Pamela Chalecka and Sinead Purcell (Ottawa) discuss their year spent in Australia, China and Canada respectively.
Students from the University of Galway have also written blog posts on their experiences in Graz, Groningen, Murcia, Osnabruck and Washington, DC. They share tips and guides from pre-departure to coming home.
Kristian Bachan (University of Murcia)
I had never thought about studying abroad until I found myself facing the decision during my second year. Initially, my inclination was towards pursuing a work placement because I felt the time pressure. However, my university experience taught me the value of living in the present moment, and that's when I started considering studying abroad as a viable option. So, I decided to ditch the 9-to-5 stress and embark on a new adventure.
Why study abroad, and why Spain? When I did the math, I calculated that I'll be working for the next 45 years, so I decided that I deserve one stress-free year to enjoy student life, especially as my First Year was affected by a certain something… And Spain had it all— its rich culture, the opportunity to immerse myself in a new language, and the exciting prospect of indulging in delicious cuisine on a daily basis were all factors that drew me towards this vibrant country.
Now, let's talk packing blunders. I made the classic rookie mistake of stuffing my suitcase with more clothes than a fashionista's dream closet. Weight restrictions became my arch-nemesis at the airport. And don't even get me started on bringing a gaming console. Turns out, the real game was outside, exploring the vibrant streets and soaking up the sun.
Before embarking on my adventure, I experienced a mix of excitement and nervousness. I couldn't help but wonder how the city would truly look and feel beyond the glimpses I had seen on Google images. The anticipation fuelled my excitement, and the nerves only served to remind me of the significance of the journey I was about to undertake.
The classes in Spain are much different from what we are used to back home in Ireland. It's hard to put into words but imagine a mix of university and secondary school vibes. Not to stress you all out already, but the exams! They had me stressing like never before. The structure is simply much different. For example, you may have to do an oral in your law modules. Who knew that was possible? MCQ exams are very popular but be aware that there is negative marking.
My favourite class was definitely the Spanish class. The class allowed me to make lightning-fast progress in mastering Spanish, and that's why those classes became the highlight of my week. The fact you can use the language in the future added extra motivation to go to these classes.
As for immersing yourself in a new language, here's the secret: sign up for a language course and go to as many ESN events as possible. Surround yourself with a friendly environment where you can freely speak and practice the language. Trust me, the more you immerse yourself, the more confident you'll become.
The food in Spain? It was a flavour explosion like no other. Prepare to embark on a culinary journey that will leave you craving more. Dining in Spain is a whole new experience, where sharing tapas with your friends becomes a delicious ritual you'll quickly embrace.
Spain is a treasure trove of gastronomic delights. Definitely try specialties like jamon serrano and chorizo. But there's so much more to discover! Their famous cold soup called ‘gazpacho’, various types of empanadas, and my favourite of all - jamon iberico. Trust me, your taste buds will thank you.
The weirdest thing I dared to try? Cow brains. Yup, you heard that right. It was a bold move, and let's just say it's a new taste I won't be rushing to taste again anytime soon.
Although Spain has great cuisine, there was one thing I couldn't help but miss—spice bags. Sometimes, nothing beats a taste of home, right?
Before your trip, it's essential to learn some Spanish. Based on my experience, not many people speak English. Regardless of your Spanish level, the locals will appreciate your efforts!
The holiday celebrations in Spain were the most surprising thing for me. They have unique ways of celebrating holidays like Christmas and Easter, which differ from our Irish traditions.
A typical day involves attending morning classes, followed by a refreshing 'siesta' in the middle of the day. Then, as evening falls, the city comes alive. If you don't have classes in the evening, going out after 10pm is a great idea!
I found Spain to be a very safe country, whether I was in my study city or exploring other Spanish cities. However, I must note that Barcelona was the only city where I didn't feel completely safe due to a high theft crime rate. So, keep a close eye on your belongings.
Be prepared for extremely warm weather in Spain, which can be quite a shock. During summer, temperatures can soar to over 40 degrees Celsius in the sun. It's advisable to have a fan since not many apartments have air conditioning.
The quality of public transportation varies depending on your destination. Unfortunately, in Murcia, it fell into the "very bad" category. Within the city, you can rely on trams and buses to get around. Remember to get a 'leapcard' as it significantly reduces travel costs to just 26 cents per journey. When traveling outside the city, you'll have the option of using buses or trains, but neither covers all areas. You might need to switch to a different bus or train along the way.
Some of my best travel experiences were when I visited my college friends in their Erasmus destinations. So, I highly encourage you to pay a visit to your friends!
Spain offers a wide range of free activities, with hiking being a standout option. If you enjoy hiking, you'll have plenty of opportunities to explore breathtaking landscapes. Even if you've never tried it before, I recommend giving it a shot. You'll be rewarded with stunning views that will leave a lasting impression.
You’d be glad to know that housing in Spain is cheaper and easier to find than in Galway… I recommend using Idealista to find housing. You can find housing from 100 euros to 450 euros. I recommend trying to find a place near the city centre because public transport stops at midnight, and most clubs or pubs start to get busy at 2am. It will also allow you easy access to public transport and a shorter journey to the university.
Friends and Family
An occasional text message or phone call can make a big difference in terms of staying in touch with your family and friends. It can also ease your feeling of being homesick. As for having a mobile phone abroad, make sure to check if your provider charges you more when using your phone abroad after a certain amount of time.
Finances and Budgeting
Working during the summer will make it easier for you to budget for the study abroad period. The Erasmus grant is very helpful, so that helps with budgeting as well. Give yourself a good budget at the start given you might buy a few things for your home or university. For example, I totally forgot that I had to get myself a blanket and bedcovers. That in itself was a couple of euros gone. Add groceries, toiletries, etc., and that explains why you need to give yourself a good amount of money at the start!
There was a common belief that participating in the study abroad programme would cause friendships to drift apart or feel different. But let me tell you, that's far from the truth. In fact, my friendships with my Irish friends have actually improved through this experience.
The most challenging aspect was adjusting to the cultural differences. From the language to the lifestyle, everything felt incredibly different. However, as time went on, I gained a deep appreciation for their culture and even found ways to incorporate some elements into my own life.
One thing that really caught my attention was Spain's attitude of living in the moment and taking their time with things. Spanish people don't seem to stress about anything. They're not bothered by being late, they don't rush through tasks, and they know the importance of taking breaks. It's truly beautiful to witness.
This stark contrast made me realise how much we rush in Ireland, even with simple things like having dinner or enjoying a cup of tea.
Of course, homesickness can sometimes be a challenge. Spending time with Galway students who are also on this journey can be incredibly helpful. While you'll meet people from all over the world, being around fellow Irish students can provide a sense of home, even if just for a moment.
I definitely experienced reverse culture shock when I came back home. In fact, I am still trying to adjust back to the Irish way of things because we have a different nightlife, and we go about our day differently than people in Spain.
I believe spending the full year abroad is perfect. I think you get in the swing of things after a month or two. Going for half a year is not enough. Why? If you have adjusted to the new surroundings after a month or two, you only really have one month left because then you have to sit exams. It will simply feel like you didn’t do everything that you wanted to.
If I was to change one thing about my study abroad experience, then I would have started learning the language over the summer. I felt that every other Erasmus student knew Spanish except me, and that can make you feel a bit alienated.
How would I describe studying abroad in 5 words? Best time of your life.
Grace Cahill (University of Groningen)
I always planned on spending time abroad, either in my career or for the purpose of studying, and chose Groningen in the Netherlands as the location of my Erasmus placement because my parents got engaged there. And, of course, it was culturally/scenically appealing, with a good reputation behind its university.
When it comes to packing, I would recommend a few things. 1. Your own 'first aid kit' (the medicines sold here can be different from back home, and can vary in price, so for your own peace of mind and convenience it's handy to bring any necessities yourself; except paracetamol, which is remarkably cheap). 2. Books and media in your own language (you can find English book stores, but they're naturally harder to come by). 3. A good rain coat! (You won't expect the weather to be as wet as back home, but it can be rather cold and damp in the winter).
One thing of note is that you should definitely sort out accommodation ASAP. Flats and apartments sell rapidly between international and domestic buyers, and it really is better to find a place close to the university (confirm which campus you're on; it will really make a difference) than to wind up an hour away. If you choose Groningen, know that you will likely wind up cycling everywhere. I did not, as someone who hates cycling, but this definitely disadvantaged me. Cyclists rule the roost here. Drivers tremble and pedestrians cower at their authority. It's a city designed more for bikes than cars or walking. Similarly, the public transport isn't always reliable. There are bike tours available and second-hand stores should you decide to become part of cyclist army.
I would suggest that you take a good look at what is provided by your accommodation. My Irish sensibilities were disturbed when I realised there was no kettle to make tea. As in Ireland, duvets and sheets are often sold separately to the actual room, and so you should consider whether you want to sort that out ahead of time or try your luck at a nearby IKEA. You'll recognise stores like that-- IKEA, ALDI, LIDL and familiar fast food chains are common. A trip to IKEA will probably be necessary either way, as cutlery, dishes, pots and pans are rarely supplied.
On the social side, there are a number of things you can do to adjust and make friends. Attend the early ESN events, and don't lie when they ask you to choose whether you prefer 'culture', 'partying' or 'sports'. It barely makes a difference to what activities you'll do, but it impacts the people you'll be grouped with. As someone who doesn't drink much, I was chancing my arm when I selected 'partying', and made some of my closest friends when bumping into the 'culture' group. Everyone in my original group was absolutely lovely, with cracking senses of humour and friendly, welcoming attitudes, but I felt too shy and sober to fully match their energy. In general, you should put your best foot forward over the first month and try your hardest to meet people and make friends. It's the most opportune time to do so. And don't let a language barrier stop you! You may meet some people with a level of English indistinguishable from yours, and you may meet others who are very good, but not what you would call fluent. This doesn't prevent you from having thoroughly enjoyable conversations and, realistically, they will speak English far better than most of us speak Irish.
Be aware once you make friends that many of them may only be staying for one semester as opposed to two. It can be jarring in January to say goodbye to a large part of your friend group, and it's harder to befriend people in the second semester.
Also, be prepared for your new friends to differ in communication style to you. Some cultures are naturally more direct, or stoic, or reserved, and Irishisms can get lost in translation. Kindness is multilingual though, so just treating people with respect will go a long way.
The classes here are all two hours in length, and can vary in size from ten to one hundred in a class. I personally adored the structure of 'Democracy and the Rule of Law', which was very much geared toward student-engagement. In a lot of lectures where participant involvement was expected a microphone would be passed among the students so people's voices could be heard. It really helped you get invested in a topic, and made the two hours pass quickly.
Regarding food, I didn't get too adventurous. I don't eat meat so traditional snacks like bitterballen were off the table, though I did try some vegetarian versions which, although not what I was expecting, were good. My German friend complained about the quality of bread in the supermarkets, but I'm not a bread-enthusiast so I can't attest to whether that's true or not. I cansay however that I was not a big fan of some desserts, which are very cream-based. On a thematically similar level there are a lot of sushi restaurants here but they pour mayonnaise with abandon, American-style, which was a disturbing revelation and not reflective of Dutch cuisine as a whole.
Still, the waffles here are top-tier and of course the classic chip stalls are great too. There are quite a few street vendors, which is a fun novelty compared to back home. Food-wise you'll be grand, just play it by ear and you'll figure out pretty quickly what you like and don't like. Most of the things you can find back home will still be available to you in Groningen, albeit in different packaging and an unfamiliar language.
A final list of fun and not-as-fun facts: a lot of cinemas play movies in English (with Dutch subtitles); you will likely have to pay water and waste taxes, if your rent doesn't cover it; taxis are daylight-robbery if you order them online, use the number for NOORD taxis instead, they're reliable; the exams are not 'doss' exams, you need 60% to pass; the trip from the airport in Amsterdam to the train station in Groningen is not very suitcase-friendly, and it's best to have a partner to transport your luggage with you (or use the Send My Bag service to send a bag ahead); apartments run warm, so you'll be comfortable in the winter and melting in the summer (bring light clothes for initial months but be prepared for the switch!).
Enter the year with an open mind to get the best experience out of it. Don't let any sense of apprehension hold you back. The sooner you settle in and adjust, the more you'll be able to enjoy your time on Erasmus. It can be scary at first, but it will stay scary unless you make efforts to adapt and come to terms with your new place of living. Groningen is a safe and beautiful city, with a massive student population. You will fit in, and you will gather your bearings, and the year will pass more quickly than you could imagine.
Mia Daly (University of Graz)
Planning and Pre- Departure
I always knew I wanted to live in another country at some stage in my life and the study abroad option as part of my course was the perfect opportunity. The only thing left to decide was the location. After researching loads of different places, I settled on Graz, Austria’s second largest city. I choose Graz because it looked really pretty from all the photos with mountains surrounding the whole city. The university’s law program also looked promising with lots of variety in classes compared to what I normally study in Galway. I also chose Graz because it’s an ideal location to travel to other countries. Austria is beside countries like Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, and Germany, which are all cheaply accessible from Graz. Before I left for Graz, I was nervous about the language barrier, as I did not speak German. However, this isn’t a major hindrance to daily life. The majority of people here speak English, and you only need a small set of phrases to help you get by. Even after taking German classes and practicing my German in public, people would still speak to me in German.
Academics and Language
The classes were a lot smaller compared to Galway. I took a lot of seminars, which usually only had 5-15 students in them. The students also varied from undergraduates to PhD students in these classes. It was nice to be exposed to all the different knowledge that each student brought. I liked how I had the option to choose which classes I wanted to take, it wasn’t a set timetable with mandatory classes as in Galway. This meant that I got to choose classes that didn’t have any exams. Instead, I had to write seminar papers, but you generally have a lot of time to write them as the workload isn’t that intense and the professor lets you know well in advance. There was a lot of classes offered through English. In particular, a lot of the law classes in Graz are humanitarian and internationally focused. Something that isn’t really offered in Galway. I got to meet lots of guest speakers, e.g., Fundamental Rights Officer of Frontex, Advisor for Human Rights for the United Nations, a lawyer for the Istanbul Convention, amongst many others. I was even taught by a former judge of the European Court of Human Rights!
Austria is a great place to live. The weekends consisted of going for hikes or travelling to the surrounding cities. There are so many gorgeous mountains and lakes in Austria that I wish I had more time to explore them all. The weather is quite similar to Ireland in many ways. For example, during the winter months there is a lot of rain and wind, but there is also snow, something that doesn’t happen quite often in Ireland. I remember September when I first arrived it was so warm. The whole of September was above twenty degrees while it was raining back home in Ireland. The months leading up to summer are also quite warm with a little rain and wind. I felt very safe living in Graz. Although it’s probably not recommended, I often walked home by myself after a night out and never felt any danger. Of course, with all cities, there are dangers, and it is important to be cautious at all times. There are also lots of activities to keep you busy in Graz during the week. Bouldering and rock climbing are very popular in Austria, so this was a new hobby that I quite enjoyed. And of course, during the colder months, it is super nice to be able to go skiing, with a lot less cost than if you were to go from Ireland. Austria also has a lot of public holidays, so it’s never too long before you get a day off. One of my favourite events was probably the Perchtenlauf and Krampusfest that happens during the lead up to Christmas. Aufsteirern is also another big holiday where the Austrians wear their traditional clothing and basically drink all day.
Graz is a very walkable city. Everything is in close proximity and is all centred around the city square. There is also a really good bike system, and the majority of students cycle to college. The public transportation is also very prompt and efficient. There are trams and buses that bring you to every corner of Graz. It is super easy to learn how it works and very cost efficient too.
I lived in MILESTONE during my time in Graz. It is a super nice accommodation with a party room, gym, study rooms, laundry room, pool table and communal area, all free of charge to use. The reception was also very helpful and quick when dealing with any queries. There are weekly cleaners for your apartment and also a designated maintenance team for any issues that may arise. It is right beside the train station which is very convenient. It is slightly farther out of the city than other accommodations, but I didn’t find this a huge problem. It is also slightly more expensive than other accommodations in Graz, but I think it’s worth it considering all that comes with it (and still a whole pile cheaper than Ireland).
Donilda Esaj (Osnabruck University)
Planning and Pre-Departure
It was always sounded to me like a good idea to study abroad. At a first stage I was nervous but later I understood that it was worth it. The reason that I chose to study at the Osnabruck University in Germany was because I wanted to meet another culture. And I chose a country which basically is in the middle of the Europe. I was excited because I had to put myself in a position to start something new in a different place without even speak their language. I was nervous because in Germany people use trains as a public transport and I didn’t know If I would manage to understand the routes and how they are working so to catch my train on time. I packed a lot of winter clothes because I was used to the weather in Ireland, but the weather in Germany had nothing to do with the weather here. It was warm enough for a winter time there.
Academics and Language
The classes were a lot different than here. Firstly the students used to have the desks facing the lecturer, which desks were put either in the traditional way or semicircle. What is more, the room of each class was small. One more difference is that most of the classes were not recorded so you had to be in person there. My favourite class was US Constitutional Law, which was being held in a medium size room.
When I was in Germany I started taking German language lessons, which helped me to communicate with German people in my daily life. So, the advice that would have given to myself before going would be that I had to had taken be German classes few months before travelling over there.
As everywhere nowadays you can find any type of food that you are looking for anywhere you go in the town. But the difference as a student in Germany is that you could try very heathy food and really cheap at the University’s Canteen which is called “Mensa”. I tried the famous German “bagel”. It’s a salty, and people used to eat it with cheese on top or plain with butter or ham like a sandwich. I preferred it totally plain. The weirdest thing that I ate was the “Fake chicken”. It was in a vegan shop and they offered a thing that was made with vital wheat gluten called seitan, and it was really flavourful.
The advice that I would give to another student would be not to stress out and to ask if they want to know something and try to enjoy as much as possible the life over there. The most surprising thing that I saw was that that people where recycling the cans/glasses/bottles in return of money. And also the prices were cheaper than in Ireland.
A daily routine would be wake up in the morning, eat breakfast then go to the University, after for lunch would meet with friends at the Mensa or the cafeteria. Then back to class, probably after that go to the supermarket and then home for some cooking and studying. Usually the weekend would go out with friends.
The weather was better than Ireland, there was not so much rain and after April it was feeling like summer too much.
I used to go around by bus or walk because everything was in walking distance from my house. People are using here in Germany trains too much because they are faster and cheaper. Also, there are routes 24 hours going on every day. My favourite travel experience was when we went with the university to Hannover and we visited the “Herrenhauser Garten”.
I was living in a student accommodation called “ Salzmarkt” it was a really good place to be living in because it is in a walking distance from university and town centre and also cheap. There were many options to apply for when filling in the application. Because the names of the streets/buildings were in German I contacted the International office of the University, so they helped me to solve this out.
Friends and Family
I was video calling every with them. day when I had the time to. I tried to do a contract here in Ireland with my mobile phone which gave me access to call and use my Data in every EU country. Since Germany is a EU country I could keep my phone number and use my phone anywhere. I used to meet with people through the events that the University was organising for the international students.
Finances & Budgeting
I was entitled to the Erasmus grant from our college in Ireland, but apart from that I was trying to save as much as I could. I spend more than I thought, and there were expenses that I wasn't expecting. For example you have to pay for each of the semesters a registration fee, so your student card to be issued and you have to buy pillow/duvet for your room because there are none.
I was expecting people outside the college to be more friendly and to speak English more so I had to handle everything by myself and try to communicate with people that they did not speak English.
It was interesting that that people in Germany are religious, and they don’t work Sundays, so everything is closed in order they to go to church, and every person no matter where the believe to they have to pay a tax for the maintenance of the church, which is being deducted from their salary.
Ellen Given (The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.)
Planning and Pre- Departure
I always knew starting my degree that I would love to study abroad. When I saw that studying in Washington D.C. was an option, I immediately considered whether it was feasible for me to go, as I have always wanted to live in the States. It turned out to be the experience of a lifetime for me and definitely taught me things about myself that I didn’t know before. I was apprehensive leaving, but more excited as I felt that the experience could only be positive overall, even if there were some difficult days. Organizing visas and packing was the most stressful part about departing, I was so anxious to just get over there and get settled in. I don’t think I overpacked – I brought the essentials and anything else I needed I knew I could buy over there (except obligatory items such as tea bags and Cadburys chocolate!).
Classes were very different in the University that I studied in. Firstly, they were a lot smaller – maybe 30 in each class. A lot of them were discussion based, and part of your grade was heavily weighted on how well you took part in class readings, class debates, projects etc. I liked this approach – not only did it improve my confidence in speaking in a room of people I did not know, but it allowed me to learn from others in ways which I don’t think is as common in Irish Universities. Some of my favourite classes were taught by a professor called Dr. Maryann Love, who taught 3 modules to me over the academic year. These were: The Civil Rights Movement, Environmental Politics, and Global Issues. I am keen to have a career in the legal/human rights field, so I found that each of these modules were extremely interesting and important. It was also an added bonus being in the centre of D.C. and having so much access to libraries, museums etc that really aided this learning process.
I think that the one thing that I would change about my experience would be the food. Whilst it was amazing to try different American “classics” such as hotdogs, chipotle, Wendy’s etc the novelty wore off quite quickly. I did not cook on campus as people used “meal swipes”, and oftentimes I craved simple home cooked meals with lots of fruit and veg. The food was not inedible by any means, just repetitive, and there is nothing like your mothers cooking! Eating out was also very expensive with tipping and tax. I thoroughly enjoyed some nice meals when I returned home!
Daily life was so exciting as campus was only 3 metro stops from D.C. city centre. Each day me and my friends would wake up, go to breakfast, and then go to classes. We then all worked on campus as per our visa requirements we were not allowed to work anywhere else. We worked in an Irish bar/grill on campus and had so much fun together as it was always full of students – it rarely felt like work, but the pay was great! After classes we would usually go to the gym and then head into the city for the evening. There was so much to do in D.C. we never got bored – endless museums, walks, bars all to keep us busy every day. My favourite place was union market – an outdoor food market overlooking the city. There were so many different food stalls of different cuisines from all over the world. It was decorated so nicely and in general just had a really good atmosphere – I’ll miss it! Other regular activities included visiting the Whitehouse, the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Tidal Basin, Lincoln memorial and much more. D.C. was a hive of activity, and we would often see the President’s helicopters flying around the city! I went to 3 concerts in Capitol One arena and also went to many basketball, ice hockey and baseball games.
Over the course of the year I got the opportunity to do lots of traveling. In the autumn I took a trip to Boston which was absolutely beautiful with all the autumnal colours. For thanksgiving I went and visited family near Philadelphia. Spring break was in March and me and my friends went to Miami for the week which is a huge party destination – it was a lot of fun!! For Easter I went up North again to Conneticticut. Other trips included to Maryland, Virginia, and New York several times – as it was only 3 hours on the train from D.C. It was great to have explored other amazing cities in the U.S. and only added to the general experience of American Life.
It goes without saying that moving away from home will change you in the most positive ways imaginable! I could never have guessed all the experiences I would have, all of the things that I would learn and all of the lifelong friends I would make. Already I have planned to meet 10 international friends in London in September and return to D.C. at Christmas to see some of my other friends. Being vulnerable and putting yourself in a completely new place by yourself forces you to grow as a person and become adaptable to many different situations. Not every day was perfect, and some things definitely did go wrong but there was plenty of support to help you overcome it and get the most out of the year. The key is to put yourself out there and say yes to everything – step outside your comfort zone and the rewards will be huge! I am definitely returning home a much more confident, independent, and forward-thinking individual with so many beautiful memories and amazing new friends.