Monday, 21 April 2014

8 ways students define their Erasmus experience

I started a little experiment in order to find out how actual Erasmus students define their experience! Data collection prove to be difficult. About two week ago, I shared the following query in three Facebook groups: “FOR ERASMUS STUDENTS! Please finish this sentence: 'Erasmus is about ... ' in a comment or pm to me.” I also explained it was about a little research for my blog. The response rate was a bit shameful. In three Facebook groups for Erasmus Exchange students in Budapest, with 3757, 1193 and 42 members, I received 5 answers in comments, and 1 personal message. I asked 3 people in person. In total there were 8 different answers that I want to have a closer look at in this post.


The party anthem

One person stated that Erasmus is about “...systematically destroying your liver!”. By this, s*he plays with the very common stereotype that international students spend most of their time abroad in the company of alcoholic drinks. Is this supposed to be lifting their spirits? Well, after a thorough examination I have to negate.
The adverb 'systematically' stresses that the use of alcohols does not happen randomly or only sometimes, but with the application of a systematic approach that gives significance to the process itself. Usually, systems are used in order to reach a goal quicker and with less expenses. The expenses here are definitely time (which is running out! Only a few months to go to have the time of your liver!) and money. So, by lowering the production costs (buying the cheapest, strongest alcohol?) one saves resources and thus can be said to work at this goal systematically. What is this goal? To destroy your liver, which expresses the sense of power over one's own body, the independence and pure accountability to one self. It might even be a sense of independence. The emphasis of the “liver” as the object of destruction restricts this to the biological sphere of the body. This gives the impression that drinking has nothing to do with your spirit, mindset, behavior.
Ending with an exclamation mark, this statement gains poignancy and a sense of certainty. My gut feeling is different though – the humourous attempt flops for me. Is it cool to destroy your own body? Not in my opinion. To rely on a 'cool' stereotype to describe one of this important time of your life doesn't amuse or impress me. If someone's experience is only about drinking – I pity him*her. That is why I don't take this answer 100% serious anyway.

The next answer, “....Eat sleep rave repeat.” doesn't strictly speaking finish my sentence. It is an intertextual reference to the song "Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat" by Fatboy Slim and Riva Starr (featuring vocals from Beardyman). The remix by Calvin Harris reached number 3 on the UK Singles Chart (Wikipedia: Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat), so it actually was quite successful. This song even has its own wikipedia entry! The answer reflects the lack of grammar skills and vocabulary range of parts of my generation (“You know... like... I mean... like...”) if you take a closer look at this song. Check out these 3 lines from the original version:
    “So there was this DJ who was like kicking off
    I don't know what he was doing but it was sick man like
    He was like hands in the air like penis out like fucking …”
It is a lot about drugs, sex and dancing. Maybe it should be named “Eat sleep rape repeat”, as the narrator is also talking about dragging a waitress from the restaurant and giving her to a homeless guy for some crack. If you dare, listen to it full length here.
Of course the remix is even more condensed in its lyrics. The main message is summarized in its title. I could go on much longer on how Eating and Sleeping restores the body functions only to be destroyed by raving again, all in a perpetual replay. Does this destructive notion sound familiar? Oh god, don't make me talk about this song any longer...

Another student replied that “Erasmus is about finding out that erasmus is not about what you thought it was about :D”. I talked to the student who turned in this answer. He came to Budapest thinking he would party, but instead everybody would spend their time at home, Skyping with their families. He was bored doing Erasmus, can you imagine? I would love to see a scientific survey that finds out if the party-stereotype is true at all! I hear so many different things and it is starting to drive me nuts.


From “Vodka” to subjectivity and beyond

One answer I received in a personal message was this: “Erasmus is about experiencing your subject outside the context of your own culture :)” It states that the main part of the experience is subject-centered. This partly concurs with the official statements about Erasmus that emphasize the educational aspects of the program. For me this is not the centerpiece of my Erasmus semester. I used the chance to take all kinds of courses that have little to do with the lessons at home. Therefore my studies abroad are more about looking beyond my own backyard than comparing the academic realms of Germany and Hungary. Two people I asked in person also agreed on “university” as a completion of the original prompt. So I guess there are more people who agree on the importance of the academic experience. Anyhow, this definition can also differ between gaining new insights and just completing courses in order to get credits for finishing your studies. This leads me to think that the answer to my prompt is highly individual.

A different, very practical answer was “travelling (:”. It neither involves studying nor partying, but still is about some concrete activity. It might be yet another definition of 'having a good time'. But I am wondering: What about the place that you moved to? Is the attention span of our action-movie and internet-click-rate-generation too small to concentrate on one city for a few months? Is it a norm ('everybody has to travel to seize the chance') or are all these people really intrinsically motivated to see various places? I have noticed before that there is little if any connection of international students to local people and places. That is one shortcoming of the program that the Erasmus manifesto claims improvement for. On the other hand, 'traveling' can be understood as a metaphor for going from one place to the other, also in terms of becoming skilled, mature and more experienced. It is a more abstract way of defining Erasmus and matches the last two answers that I will talk about.


Beyond the practical

These two answers moved beyond and named abstract themes of their Erasmus time: Erasmus is about “diversity” and “broadening your horizon”.
The term 'diversity' is a likewise concept. It can refer to the diversity of experiences, of the individuals participating, of their various motives and histories. It can also refer to the academic diversity one can experience abroad. Experiencing real diversity requires a certain mindset: one has to be aware. By that I mean the conscious observing and reflecting of these new impressions. It is easy to say that “I like to meet new people”; but it is another step to really dig into the small differences and astonishing similarities between human beings from all over Europe. I doubt that this is the case for all Erasmus students and of course it is asked too much to show this kind of awareness 24/7.
'Broadening your horizon' is a common trope, used to express the possibility of stretching the edges of your 'horizon' to a potentially unlimited extent. The word 'horizon' means, in this context, “the limit of a person’s knowledge, experience, or interest:”; suggested synonyms include “range of experience, outlook, perspective” (source: Oxford dictionaries).
Is any person capable of this? Is the Erasmus program set for it? I am very positive about it; by definition your knowledge and experience will increase if you move to a foreign city. Even if the increase consists of learning about different Palinka-flavors or only the way from your flat to your campus. But in general this definition of Erasmus is useful thanks to its openness. In which direction the expansion grows is left to the individual, its premises and consciousness.


My conclusion

This open field to define the Erasmus experience accords with my personal conclusion from this little field trip: There is not a single definition for Erasmus. Everybody has their own definition of their Erasmus-semester. Maybe everybody should have their own definition. It would be a great loss to restrict it to certain realms, it could even be a challenge for some people. I, for example, don't drink alcohol. If I could only call myself a 'real Erasmus-student' if I was destroying my liver, I would have a problem there. This is also about expectations, and how they can fail you. Any stereotype can influence your expectations.
My personal definition goes like this: Erasmus is about exploring. It's about exploring people, places and thoughts that I have not seen before. It's about doing so with all my senses, letting myself be flooded with new impressions. It's about finding out who I am and how I can express myself. If expressing myself means celebrating life with generous amounts of drugs, that's fine. If it means taking a course in poetry writing, that's fine. If it means digging deeper into your academic domain, that's fine. The thing is: any thing goes.
I wouldn't want anybody to restrict my Erasmus-experience. The only limits are the ones I bring with me, be it financial, psychological or health related presuppositions. Beyond that, I am free to define my life. I am free to find my own narrative of this particular sequence of my life.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! I am the student who "came to Budapest thinking he would party, but instead everybody would spend their time at home, Skyping with their families.", and since I kept thinking a lot about this topic I'd like to share a deeper insight on my disappointment.

    Your conclusion states that "Erasmus is about exploring. It's about exploring people, places and thoughts that I have not seen before. It's about doing so with all my senses, letting myself be flooded with new impressions. It's about finding out who I am and how I can express myself."
    This is my definition of life, this is what I try to do everyday, I could say this is the only goal of my existence, so I thought I could use my Erasmus time to do things I can't normally do, to gather all sorts of new experiences that can only come to me in this situation: practicing Hungarian on the field, spending time with people I can only meet here, live in a more relaxed reality that's far away from the problems of the "normal life", and why not? Partying hard like there is no tomorrow.

    My disappointment comes from the realization that a lot of people don't seem to think the same way, a lot of students I met here have no interest in the local culture or language at all, no interest in meeting a lot of people nor in meeting and getting to really know a few people, no interest in partying, basically these students have no interest in any of the things that makes Erasmus different from their everyday life.

    These people traveled to another country but still don't go out of their confort zone, these people spend more time Skyping with families and boy/girl-friends than having a real human contact, these people will go back home after three of the five months they got a scholarship for.

    Even though I agree with you that everybody should have their own definition of his Erasmus, I still don't get why some people even bother applying for it.