Studying abroad as an independent student (non-Erasmus)
I am a Social Anthropologist at the University of Edinburgh with a penchant for all things French. I was very keen to do a year abroad in a Francophone University, and the fact there wasn’t an Erasmus exchange was not going to stop me. So, here is a summary of The Good, The Bad, and The Downright Ugly of doing independent study abroad. I am studying at Paris Descartes.
1. The Good
- You have to do all the courses as opposed to just a selection (unlike Erasmus). This means you are really doing a year in a French University as opposed to just taking a selection of courses. Ok, so the course might not match up as tightly, but it also means you can discover the delights of French sports, such a handball, which you can get University credits for doing.
- I have 20 hours a week, almost all with the same students, which means it’s really worth getting to know the other students. And it also compensates for the fact that getting to know someone in another language takes just that little bit longer. I’ve found being interesting in French much more labour intensive than being interesting in English. I ended up showing my friend Angelique the naked photos of Prince Harry in Las Vegas yesterday. Being foreign has its perks.
- You don’t fall into the Erasmus crowd, so you are less likely to find yourself speaking English. There are loads of ‘Erasmus meet and greets’ which I think are as much a curse as a blessing, and in part seem to undermine the whole point of going abroad.
- In France, the public universities are cheap - about €300 for the whole year. So, yes on the one hand you don’t get an Erasmus grant, but on the other you’re not forking out mega bucks. (In fact for me coming from Edinburgh, I only have to pay half tuition fees for this academic year, which means my finances are juicer by going abroad than they would be if I’d stayed in Edinburgh.)
- Necessity is the mother of Invention. If you want to learn a foreign language, a third year abroad is a clichéd but true ‘once in a lifetime’. Provided you have the necessary level of French, once you’re out here, and prepared to be vigilant about speaking it, you come on leaps and bounds. Don’t let our monolingual heritage stop you; we English have the ability to get beyond Franglais. Again, if you want to, you will, (needless to say if you’re not that bothered you probably won’t...). From my 6 weeks here, I have learnt more French than 15 years worth of half-hearted study at home.
- Whilst I’m on the clichés, you learn about yourself too, ‘That that don’t kill me can only make me stronger’ is so true. Thank you Kanye for those pearls of wisdom. Getting through French bureaucracy is not only a paperwork victory but a personal victory too.
2. The Bad
- Yeah, the paperwork is bad. You have to do everything yourself; the University (understandably) simply does not have the time to sort out the practicalities of every year abroad. So you have to see to every last bit of red tape, which is bad enough in English, let alone in French; not only another language, but another system too. Things like credit transfers, letters of motivation, finding official translators....I could go on and on.
- My application for Descartes was all done by paper, as opposed to being done online, so the ‘inscription’ involves doing a bureaucratic treasure hunt around the University. I felt like I deserved some kind of award when I finally came out the other end with an actual student card. Or a Gin and Tonic at least.
- A severe lack of an Erasmus grant. So no ski trips to the Alps.
- The French university system works on a much more relaxed way than ours does, so I didn’t find out until min July that I had got my place. This means had I not got it, I would have had a real job finding somewhere to live in Edinburgh (my friends had all already all signed their tenancy agreements), and I had the dreaded question pretty much every day ‘So what are you actually doing next year?’ I almost want to put this in the ‘The downright Ugly’ section. It’s really annoying not knowing what side of The Channel/ La Manche you’ll be on until the month beforehand.
3. The downright Ugly
- Edinburgh does not now officially allow independent study abroad. I only got mine because of an administrative error. This legislation has been in place for a couple of years now, but because it was not clearly conveyed to me (and because I hassled a hundred different people) I got it. For a university that prides itself on ‘academic innovation’ and other such jingles, I think the amount of support students who want to do independent study abroad get is frankly terrible. Actually it’s just non-existent. Whichever University you’re at, before you embark on such a process make sure it’s actually possible. Get it in writing. You might want to frame it just to be sure. And if you do get through the ugly side of things, there’s a lot of sight-seeing to be done on the other side.