Studying at a foreign university is a unique opportunity to identify with, and learn from, an extraordinary myriad of people and cultures. Exposure to a melting pot of research interests and international perspectives profoundly uproots previous understanding about the scope of an academic discipline. Apprehensions about working/living abroad are overcome and it is exhilarating to realise that language communication holds the key to new horizons and multicultural friendships.
From September 2003 to January 2004 I lived in Spain and studied Geography at the University of Salamanca. This essay gives me the opportunity to tell my Erasmus story. It focuses on how my identity has been affected as 1) a geographer, 2) a temporary resident in Spain, 3) a British citizen, and it concludes with a reflection on how Erasmus has influenced my future career plans.
Why Spain? Having spent 8 months of my gap year in Ecuador my knowledge of Spanish improved substantially in spoken form. Realising that Newcastle University offered Erasmus as an optional module I was motivated by the opportunity to improve my language skills in an academic context. I set about asking friends which Spanish university they most recommended.
“GO to Salamanca!” they replied. Situated in the heart of the Iberian Peninsular, this is the international student capital of Spain. Following several email enquires a new link was established, thanks to both the flexibility of the Erasmus programme and the willingness of both Geography departments to diversify their international links. I was the only student from Newcastle who went to Spain.
Geography is a fantastic discipline to study abroad. Indeed, I would argue that this should be a fundamental part of every Geography degree programme in the country. My academic work undertaken in Spain can be divided into two parts; taught modules and local individual research for my undergraduate dissertation.
The modules I chose to study [Geopolitics and Latin American Development Issues] provided a refreshing opportunity to study my research interests from a completely new perspective. Each module consisted of three hours a week of taught lectures. Over one third of each class consisted of international students which hugely enriched discussions and class presentations on key geographical issues. This also softened the intensity of the language barrier, each lecture becoming an interactive Spanish/Geography lesson! Why study in the UK if you can both develop language skills and benefit from the experience of other European Geographers on an Erasmus exchange?
Above all, the taught modules made me realise for the first time how relevant the European Union is to every aspect of public life. Spanish geopolitics cannot be separated from European geopolitics, which in turn cannot be separated from North African geopolitics and so on. I was challenged in front of a class of thirty about the geographical implications of Britain’s role in Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and Iraq! The lecturer skilfully used the different nationalities in the room to make us critique once-taken-for-granted historical policies of our country. Without a doubt, Spanish home students were receiving an unusually diverse education.
The Latin American Development module consisted of a series of lectures given by visiting Spanish professors. Undoubtedly these lectures are what I most remember about the academic part of my Erasmus experience. Studying about Latin America [currently my main research interest for MA] with the direct participation of multiple Latin American students provided a constant forum for vibrant debates in lectures.
My undergraduate dissertation [entitled ‘The Transnational Household: A Study of Migration from Ecuador to Spain’] depended upon building links not only around the university but also in local community organisations. This piece of research has since been entered into a national competition of the Royal Geographical Society’s Women & Geography Study Group. Its originality and the fact that it was entirely based in a foreign language are owed in part to the skills offered by the Erasmus exchange. In-depth interviews were undertaken in both Ecuador [over the summer 2003] and Spain with both migrants and families of migrants in order to unpack the complex family dynamics and transnational flows operating between the two countries.
To become immersed in Spanish culture as much as possible [helped by knowing no English people] I decided to live with three Spanish girls. This proved a great way of gaining access to the famous Spanish [night] life! I joined a local orchestra and gym to meet other Spanish people. I also volunteered throughout the five months at the local community organisation [Caritas] offering support for local immigrants where cultural workshops and language classes were held every night of the week. This not only provided key social networks for my dissertation, it also gave me inside exposure to the complex political climate in Spain associated with increased immigrants; a topic discussed daily in El Pais national newspaper.
By living in Spain you come to understand better other political, economic and cultural aspects of the country e.g. realising that only forty years ago this was a peripheral and conservative country under dictatorship, thus explaining continued strength of family ties and position of middle-aged women and so forth.
You learn a considerable amount about your own country and culture as a result of living abroad. Deeply ingrained national stereotypes dictate how people understand and imagine particular countries to be like. When socialising with international friends we would often get in to long discussions about politics, peoples, the future etc. “What I can’t understand is how can the UK justify having the Queen as head of its Church?!” was one random question I remember being asked by my Italian friend! Again, the Erasmus experience places you situations which demand you to question. “How come there are so few English students on Erasmus?” was another question I was often asked. “Because the Brits are so inward looking” I felt ashamed to admit.
Five months on from my Erasmus experience I have new contacts across Europe with friends in Norway, Italy, Belgium, and Germany as well as in Latin America, who all shared the Salamanca experience. It baffles me to return home and find so many people who say NO to greater integration with Europe. Learning a foreign language and an ability to travel are the way forward for greater global understanding and are key to new career opportunities.
Having graduated in June with a First Class degree I am currently studying for an MA in Gender [Research]. I plan to do further research in Latin America to PhD level using and depending upon my Spanish language skills and new contacts. As any Geographer would delight in saying, identities are fluid constructions! I hope this essay has successfully illustrated the way Erasmus has influenced me as an individual. Ultimately, Erasmus has given me the confidence to be ambitious; to travel and learn from all peoples and to question.