Studying Abroad in Europe – Myths and Reality

Studying abroad in Europe always comes with a reputation. Among all students the European study abroad programs are rarely mentioned without some of these words accompanying it: Beer! Shots! Party! Beach! Surf classes! Sangria! More Party! Drunk girls! Hot surfer guys!

A beer at the beach. The essence of studying abroad?

After all, the European study abroad program — called “Erasmus” — allows students from all over Europe to study in any other European country without paying anything. Moreover, you’ll even get a financial aid ranging from 80 to 800 €uro (yeah, guess how much I got) depending on your home country. The idea is simply brilliant: You can have an experience abroad without falling behind in your course of studies, since you have the guarantee that all your abroad credits will be accepted in your home country. Financial and academic security while studying abroad? The Erasmus program is definitely one of the easiest ways to go abroad!

Partying with exchange students in Tavira, Algarve
(Photo by ErasmusLisboa)

But imagine young European and international students living in another country for one semester — far off any boundaries from home. Yes. It gets wild. It gets crazy. You know the stories. And they are probably true. What do the cliché study abroad students need to make them happy? Cheap alcohol, sun, beaches and a crazy wild party scene. But —

Is it really all about the parties?

This party-oriented cliché might sound exaggerated, but only look at the Erasmus parties everywhere in Europe. All you’ll hear is “free shots”, or “free Sangria until midnight”, or “free beer every time we play song x”. The cheaper the alcohol, and the bigger the glasses, the better stories.

So, this happened. 

The craziest party theme that I heard of are the “traffic light” parties: You dress in a certain color to signal what you’re up for in the dating department – green means “up for anything”, yellow “undecided”, red “taken” and so on. So you don’t even have to talk to your potential hook up anymore.

I really wanted to do a semester with Erasmus in Portugal, because of all its academic and financial advantages. But I was scared about how much partying I could handle (I’m not 21 anymore, you guys!). I wanted something real, something authentic. I wanted to get to know the locals and improve my Portuguese. This was most likely not going to happen at some all-you-can-drink-event.

Students from all over the world!

Admitted, I had my fair share of partying in Portugal. I went to a few of those Erasmus parties where you feel like a piece of meat that gets evaluated. I had the hangovers (yes, plural) of my life in Portugal. Portuguese nights out are exciting, and I’m glad I experienced them. But those parties particularly for study abroad students? They were definitely NOT my favorite ones.

Will studying abroad ruin your relationship?

When I told my friends and family I was going to Portugal for a semester everyone asked me “What about Steffen?”. I never had a doubt that we could make it long distance for five months, but everyone else predicted that relationships are pretty unlikely to survive a semester abroad. I couldn’t really see why. We live in the 21st century – we have email, skype, instant messaging. We could talk daily.

With “traffic light” parties and Southern European surfer guys in wet suits, I can see why being faithful might be a challenge for some people. During a semester abroad you are surrounded by an easy-going life style which naturally also applies to relationships to some extent.

Um, yeah. 

I heard of couples who split up for the sake of a true study abroad experience. Some guys I met even admitted that there is a secret bro-code points game for all your study abroad hook ups: 2 points for making out with an girl from another country, 5 points for getting it on. More points if you manage to do all that with a local girl. And minus points if you hook up with a girl from your own country – hey, you are supposed to have a “foreign culture experience”, right?

Making long distance work: Steffen came to visit me in Lisbon

Probably this was the reason why everybody told me that no relationship ever survived a semester abroad. But mine did. And I was friends with a lot of other girls who were in serious relationships and they all managed to maintain theirs too.

Do you actually have to study?

Studying abroad it not necessarily about actual studying. I mean, of course it’s not. I met students at orientation in the beginning of the semester who I didn’t see anymore afterwards. I understand not wanting to spend most of your precious time abroad at university when you could spend your time traveling around the country and exploring its culture. You can still get your credits at home — but some parties and trips are a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Writing an art history paper in my favorite coffee shop in Lisbon

But for me, attending classes was what made me feel “real”.  I chose classes where I would learn more about my temporary new home country — Portuguese literature, history, and art history. I must admit, if my night before was too long, I did fall asleep in history class. And the Portuguese language class I took was incredibly challenging (giving an art historical presentation in Portuguese!), but super helpful in my everyday life.

A glimpse into Portuguese language class 

I skipped a class here and there, but usually I went to university four days a week. I really loved having a daily routine. That moment when I started recognizing the people at my subway stop, or when the waiters of the pastelaria next to my university started to ask me “Um sumo laranja natural como sempre, menina?” when I came in, because they knew I loved their fresh pressed orange juice – those were the times I started realizing that Lisbon was my home. And that was the most beautiful feeling of all.

The truth? Studying abroad can be whatever you want it to be!

I learned that it is up to you what kind of a study abroad experience you decide to have. If all you want to have after your semester abroad is a tan, great stories, a lot of “making-out-with-someone-from-another-country-points”, and improved surfing skills — no one will keep you from it. I’ve seen study abroad students who couldn’t even order a coffee in Portuguese at the end of the semester — they were content with having an amazing time and didn’t worry about blending in.

I however, decided that I wanted my semester abroad to be more than just that.

Off to the beach after class – study abroad student life!

I chose to move in with locals instead of living in a shared apartment with a bunch of other party-addicted Erasmus students. I chose to go to university four days a week and actually attend classes to get my credits. I didn’t exactly like studying for exams, or writing papers — but I learned how a Portuguese university works. And having a favorite coffee shop in downtown Lisbon as my study hangout made me feel like a real student, like a real citizen of the city. I simply adored that feeling.

Dining with my amazing roommate Vicky in her hometown

Although I had the craziest nights out, my favorite times were the ones where I had lunch with my roommates and their friends lasting for 10 hours! Or the nights when my roommates and I just ordered pizza and watched the latest episode of How I Met Your Mother together. Or when my roommate Vicky took me to her little hometown in the mountains. I loved this glimpse into their real everyday Portuguese life. That was what I came to Portugal for.

Studying abroad is about the choices you make

I simply chose to strike a balance — I traveled around Portugal, I partied, I sunbathed, I studied, I spent a weekend in bed just because I felt like it, I wrote my papers. I don’t think I missed something just because I did not go to every party, or because I skyped with Steffen instead of meeting new guys.

The study abroad clichés are true… just not for everybody. It’s your decision what your semester abroad will be like. But no matter how you decide — it will be a once in a lifetime experience!

Did you study abroad? How did you experience it?