16 May 2013

The slightly-more-sweet-life of a student in Spain.

¡Hola todos!

I've been thinking that since I've recently only made a few posts about personal subjects including my arrival to Spain, various places I've visited since being here and a short picture post featuring my bedroom, I should probably write something with a little more substance and which may be of actual use to somebody who reads this if they happen to come across it in a year or so when they're about to begin their Erasmus experience.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you might remember the post that I made in October of last year about how I found university in France to be a little bit, let's put it politely, unorganised (it's sort of full of gripes about how chaotic the university I attended is, but if you read the post you'll understand why). I decided I wanted to do a contrast post between my experience at a French university and my experience here at a Spanish university because the two are really very different.

Let's do a table. Everybody loves a good table

Issue France Spain
Initial Impression
If you read the post mentioned above, I think I likened the French university to Chernobyl post-disaster. It was like a labyrinth and the only means of navigation was the graffiti and political propaganda plastered throughout the decaying hallways. (That's not to say that your French host university will be like this). Big contrast to France; the building was at least standing up on its own without wire nets catching bits of falling debris. The university was so new when I arrived that parts of the library were still being built and overall it is a lot easier to find your way around. It's relatively smaller than the one in France, so that might be why.
Choosing Classes
It seems a distant memory now but I remember distinctly receiving no help whatsoever from anybody at the university. Everything was all very confusing and we had to find out ourselves where classes were held and at what time and then attend them to see if we wanted to take them or if there was enough room for us. The whole process took about three weeks. It was much the same here in Spain, but at least everything is conveniently displayed online so that you're not spending three hours a day running around a university trying to write your own timetable (I also had some friends who'd been here since September who were really helpful, which I am grateful for). Once I'd picked my subjects (which took all of about an hour), it took me a week to decide which ones I wanted to take for the semester.
Attending Classes
Once classes were chosen, attending them wasn't too bad, except some of the content was quite hard to follow at first because my ears hadn't quite adjusted to the Southern-French accent yet (especially in my Spanish class, where the teacher had a very strong Niçois accent). I picked up some interesting information about women's issues and rights in France in my French Civilisation class, which will help me for my dissertation in my final year. At first, classes here were even harder to follow because my ear had only been tuned into the sounds of Spanish for about 2 years at the time, but now I feel like I can follow about 70% of the content. I also feel that I'm getting more out of university here; my Spanish has improved tenfold and subjects such as Spanish in America and Translation are equipping me with knowledge I need for my final year at university.
The Teachers
In France, the teachers are strictly teachers. They come to teach you for a few hours that day and then they leave, they don't hang about. You'd be really lucky to receive an email reply from any of them since you're supposed to know exactly what you're doing at all times even if they don't tell you what it is you're meant to be doing. In Spain it couldn't be much different, the teachers will ask you how you're getting on with things and if you need a hand with any of the assignments and they reply promptly to any questions you send via email. I prefer Spanish teachers to French ones because they speak to you like you're an actual human being.
Degree Structure
The one thing I liked about the French university I attended was that students seemed to be able to tailor their degree to suit them. We can do that in England too, of course, but in my experience at Sunderland University, language students don't have enough of a broad choice to ensure we have individually-structured degrees, instead of seeming like we've all just fell off the same educational conveyor belt. It's much the same in Spain as it is in France; students have some core modules that they must take depending on what their main degree subject is, but there seems to be an exceptionally broad choice of options for them to take and, if I'm correct, they can even choose outside of their field of study if they wish. It seems there is a lot more freedom for tailoring your degree to your needs in mainland Europe, even though they pay a hell of a lot less for their education here. England could learn a thing or two.
Maybe this should file under "Admin" instead, but I had some issues with exams in France. Firstly, like everything else, we were expected to know when and where they were taking place without being given any such information. Secondly, if you have an exam clash it is deemed your fault, not the department's. In the end I was forced to choose between my Spanish or Catalan exam because Valerie in admin "did not see how she could help me." Other than that, exams and their content are pretty straightforward for Erasmus students. I've only sat a couple of exams and assessments here in Spain so far, but it's all a lot more relaxed than it was in France. You're not afraid to ask the teachers numerous times when and where the exam will be taking place and they'll also remind you the week beforehand, so no worries there. In some modules you can also choose between doing coursework or a final exam, so if you're not an exam person at all, like me, then Spain is the place for you (or my university is, at least).

It is as follows:

- Practice your language(s) as much as possible before you arrive - I sort of let mine flop during the summer before I arrived in France, which was not the best of ideas. However, we are all born with a survival instinct and that definitely kicks in when you're out in a foreign country on your own.
- Arrive at your host university as prepared as you possibly can be - file, scan, copy, upload all documents that need to be filed, scanned, copied and uploaded before you arrive, so that you can prove that you've done your bit.
- Take at least twelve passport photos with you - foreign universities, especially French ones, seem to love to put a face to a name. You might also need these for bus passes, bank accounts and NIE number paperwork (for Spain).
- Don't expect everything to be presented to you on a plate - you're an Erasmus student and you don't pay fees, so the university will look after you as far as your paperwork is completed and that's about it. Just collect yourself, breathe and try to figure out with the help of your peers what you have to do next.
- Also don't be afraid to ask for help - if you know where to ask, then just keep asking. I've found that admin staff in France either pretend to not know the answer or give you a look as if to say "that's for me to know and for you to find out". In Spain, they have a mañana, mañana attitude about things, but are more friendly so you just have to remind them repeatedly.
- Be confident in yourself! - You're here for a reason and you've been studying your language(s) long enough to be able to use them in real life situations. In the North-East of England, we have a phrase we use which is "Shy bairns get nowt." To the rest of the world that basically means "Ask and ye shall receive."

I hope this post wasn't too lengthy (when I have something to talk or complain about, I tend to go on a lot longer than necessary) and I hope, overall, that it helps at least one future Erasmus student.

Is there anything you would like to add about your own experiences in a foreign university? Do you agree with or disagree with me? Do you have any questions to ask? Please feel free to use the comment box below.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin'!


  1. Love this table! Thanks for sharing! Xo, M&K at brewedtogether.com

    1. Thank you! I'll be trying to make more informative posts for new Erasmus students in the near future which presumably will take the same format, so watch this space!