The Ups, Downs, the Lefts and the Rights of an International Student: The Erasmus Experience

          Riding public transportation, running late for class, entering the wrong classroom—let alone building, introducing one’s self and major, meeting new people, and eating lunch at the school cafeteria.

         These are some day-to-day college student experiences before the outbreak. Mundane events yet we still find a surge of excitement. Face-to-face classes seem to be nostalgic because we’ve only just begun to reopen schools and universities, well in the case of the Philippines.

         But what if I told you, you were to spend an entire semester in an entirely different country with three other Filipino students, in an apartment you have yet to see and visit would the situation be the same?

         Absolutely not.

       My first day at Universidad de Huelva was quite like any first day of class. This was my first time in two years to attend face-to-face class so I was ecstatic to finally have seatmates, to physically write in my notebooks, and attentively listen to my professors—online school took out the fun in studying for me.

        But this first day came to me as a surprise because my schedule did not specifically indicate which building I was supposed to be in so I assumed, for Children Culture, Media, and Values class, would be in the Faculty of Education, Psychology, and Sports Sciences. I spent ten minutes roaming around the corridors looking for a classroom and when I finally gave up, asked the front desk where this class was held, and she pointed to the building across from where we were and said, “Edificio Paulo Friere” or “Paulo Friere building”.

       I finally found the classroom I was supposed to be in and it was jam-packed. I was a few minutes late so most students were already in. This class was not taught in English and it was recommended for students with level 2 Spanish but I enrolled anyway. The majority of the period was staring at the projector screen because I could not understand anything. I was so glad our professor was kind enough to translate some of the instructions. We spent the next minutes introducing ourselves and there I found out that all of my classmates, excluding the Erasmus students, spoke only Spanish. When it was my turn to say something about myself everyone turned and looked to see who was this tiny girl at the back speaking English.

         To be honest, it felt intimidating and nerve-wracking to communicate with my classmates but was proven wrong in the next meetings. My classmates wanted to talk to me and remind me of a few things before class but it was the language barrier that kept us from speaking. We tried our best to socialize with one another with the help of a translator.

      Despite being taught in Spanish, I’ve come to appreciate our lessons which are heavily centered on child pedagogy and intercultural communication. This actually hit the sweet spot for a Development Communication student. Most lessons and ideas were related to DevCom so it wasn’t that difficult to make sense of the class and to show it through our outputs. Our requirements were very DevCom as well since we submitted a press article, podcast, and a personal journal. Not to mention the article we had to read for our exam was titled, “Countervalues of the digital ethos perceived by future trainers”. It was a study conducted to measure the perceptions of university students majoring in education towards the problems faced by the average internet user meaning, it focuses on cybernetics or the theory that involves complex systems like the World Wide Web.

       My favorite takeaway from this class would be the very heart of communication, “Meanings are in people.”

       Moreover, what I found intriguing was their COVID-19 tracking system because our seats were numbered and we had to send our seat numbers to our professor via email or Moodle, the online platform used by the university. I mean it’s not that complex but it’s an additional task for the professor then again, we had two professors, Begoña and Claudio. So, I’m guessing they are able to handle the academic workload plus the contact tracing responsibility.

       Speaking of professors, I was surprised to find out that students could address their teachers by their first names. We never do that in the Philippines, especially in the Cordilleras where titles and honorifics are huge signs of respect and authority. I assumed that professors wanted to level themselves with the students for better and open communication relationships.

      The next class was rather interesting and quite distant from my degree because it was Spanish and English literature. The professor was strict, stern, and smart something every student is afraid of. Though most of my classmates think he’s full of himself and gives misleading instructions, I think he’s a lovely person. He’s the kind of professor that doesn’t need a PowerPoint presentation to get his ideas across and can talk about literature for hours on end.

      This class has reawakened the very dormant bookworm in me because I have the shortest attention span nowadays. Back in elementary and high school, I was a wide reader and I would finish novels in a few days and now I can’t even read an excerpt without getting bored or glancing at my phone.         For weeks we’ve analyzed the Spanish classics both prose and poetry, from the minds of Richard Ford, Richard Crashaw, Salman Rushdie, Aphra Behn, Ernest Hemingway and so many more. These are authors I’ve never heard of before (except Hemingway) but I am so glad I took this class because their writings are beautiful and taking your time to actually grasp their thoughts is a magical adventure for me. And to set foot in the actual place they were writing about in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries sparks my imagination even more. I know we have authors like these back home but their styles in writing make Spain look so picturesque, considering that most of the narratives are travelogues.

       Additionally, poetry has a special place in my heart so dissecting and scrutinizing each detail in a poem was the cherry on top for this class.

       I do understand that Filipinos are exposed to a far different genre of literature and most students lack appreciation for it. But I am by no means discrediting and implying that local authors are inferior to European authors.

       Additionally, the earliest class beginning at 9 AM, is a quite reasonable time yet students, like me, still have trouble with tardiness. This is probably because of the cold but now that spring or summer, I can’t tell anymore, has truly started, it can be hot enough to stop cuddling my blanket.

      (Fun fact #1: Four-season countries have shorter days during the winter and longer days in the summer, which means the former has fewer hours of sunshine and the latter has more. The sun rises at around 7 AM and sets at 9 PM).

La Cafetería en Universidad de Huelva

         What’s a first school without checking the cafeteria. Campus El Carmen has around four cafeterias but I’ve only been to two because they’re close to my classrooms. The first one I visited is the main one located in front of their International Relations Office. It had a façade and offered more food options with prices ranging from 1€- 7,50€. (Fun fact #2: The Spanish or Europeans rather, use commas in place of periods when it comes to currency so 7,50€ is seven euros and fifty cents).

        For the first few days, I’ve only tried the “Boca pizza” roughly translated to “mouth pizza” which costs 2€. They call it this because they take the bottom half of a baguette and spread your preferred flavor or ingredients like 4 Quesos, Marinara, Barbacoa (barbeque), and Carbonara.

         Another dish I’ve tried is the “Burguer Buey” which is a burger with tomato and lettuce with a side of fries. Having a “construction-worker appetite” this meal is so worth 2,50€. Every time I ordered this, I felt like I was ready to take more classes and accomplish more tasks.

        Then a classmate of ours showed us another cafeteria located at the Faculty of Education, Psychology, and Sports Sciences. This cafeteria was so much better than the main one and cheaper too. They mostly served “bocadillos” or the Spanish version of a sandwich. The bread used looked like a baguette but thicker and we had two options cured ham or serrano. As for the spreads, there were a plethora of options. There was tomato paste with minced garlic, the regular tomato paste, honey, butter, chocolate syrup, marmalade, cream cheese, York ham pate (ham paste), and pate Iberico (another type of ham paste). These were in baskets and we could choose as many as we liked. Since it was a bit chilly that day, we decided to order ColaCao, the Spanish version of Milo, a chocolate malt beverage in the Philippines.

The Glamor of Studying Abroad

           To put things in perspective, my time here has truly been special and I’ve experienced a lot of growing pains. I’ve been homesick most of the time because I’ve been missing a lot of things back home, the food—particularly the rice (eating in restaurants is expensive and their rice only comes in 1KG bags), my family, my friends, my dogs, and my hobbies. I never knew how difficult it can be living so far away from home and one factor that’s played a major part is probably the weather. I now grasp why people living in countries with four seasons love summer so much because the cold is unbearable and can affect our emotions to the point of depression.

          Study abroad opportunities for undergraduates are rare in the Philippines, thus experiences like these especially the ugly ones, are definitely undiscussed. With social media like Youtube that usually romanticize studying abroad, it’s rather an imperative to speak of healthy coping mechanisms, emotional management, and support systems.

        This isn’t to scare anyone or to discourage aspiring Erasmus students but I believe that mentally preparing oneself for a journey like this is the first thing to consider when applying for a scholarship abroad. I’m only speaking from personal experience since the other three students seem to absolutely love it here and have adjusted really well.

         In conclusion, as much as I’m enjoying and submerging myself in a culture that’s totally new and at the same time familiar to me, I’m still in the process of climbing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs until eventually reaching self-actualization.// Ronica Raine Babsa-ay