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?

  • This is a really great, honest article. Good job!

    • JulikaSarah

      Thank you!

    • Wanderlust Marriage

      Great post and great work getting so much out of your program Julika!

      Growing up in Florida I always wanted to do the study abroad thing in college but was always a bit put off by the price tag. I lived at home during university and would grab cheap tickets to Europe when I could over Christmas breaks. After college I did a 4 month stint bouncing around abroad and met my Aussie wife in a hostel. Now we’ve been living in Europe for 5 years 🙂

      Still, study abroad would have been cool!! 🙂

  • dewtraveller

    Julika love this post (as always)!

    At the moment I’m an Erasmus Mundus student doing my last semester…and similarly to your Erasmus programme, us “emundusians” are also famous for our crazy parties :)…oh the joys!
    I have to admit though, my most enjoyable moments so far are the simple ones, like having dinners and lunches with my friends from all over the world, learning their cultures…and also watching How I Met Your Mother in my super small dorm room. These are the moments I will miss the most (and also our after exams parties!)
    I really admire you for your long distance relationship with Steffen and how you’re balancing it with your life abroad, I know how hard it is since a lot of my friends consult with me about this (like, uh, I’m not exactly the expert on this!).

    • JulikaSarah

      Thank you, Aggy! I absolutely agree with you! It’s the people who turn your semester abroad into a fabulous experience, not the parties!
      Long distance relationships are really tough, but as long as you keep communicating honestly and regularly I’m convinced every couple could make it! I would be happy to share my tips your friends, if they have any further questions 🙂

  • Wow Juilka this is a fantastic post – I can tell you really spent some time thinking about it and it’s so well organized! I never had the chance to study abroad (as it’s certainly not free coming from the states), which is a lot of why I moved here after graduating so I could still have the experience, and oh was au pairing the experience since I had SO much free time. I actually spent (and still do) a lot of time at Erasmus parties and with Erasmus kids. It’s always really fun to meet people from all over the world and for me it was a nice outlet since the common language at the events is always English.

    • Also, go girl on staying with your man 🙂 I always tell people who are going to au pair a year that I wouldn’t want to come in with a boyfriend, but it’s also a full year and over a whole ocean. I think it tends to hold people back a little because you may stay in during evenings to talk to him due to the time difference and such, but if he’s your guy, I totally agree with you!

    • JulikaSarah

      Thank you for this wonderful compliment, Alex! I appreciate it!
      I got to know some American CIEE students, and I couldn’t believe how much they were paying for their semester abroad! It’s so great that you found a way to go abroad anyways! And Erasmus parties are definitely a fun way to meet new people 🙂
      I agree – long distance for a year and when your partner is on another continent is a whole different thing! But no matter how far the distance, the most important thing is communication – in the 5.5 years Steffen and I are together we actually never lived in the same city (he currently lives in Bavaria), but we established a ritual of talking on the phone and instant messaging regularly so we would always know where we are at the moment. It’s hard work, but managable 🙂

  • I understand it’s easy to get sucked into the whole Erasmus bubble, but I can’t say it doesn’t bother me a bit that the students aren’t using the opportunity to live in and study in a new country to the fullest! So many people would love to be in their shoes, but for any number of reasons, can’t. The most rewarding part of my study abroad program in Greece was interacting with the locals and really discovering the country and culture. Great post!

    • JulikaSarah

      I totally agree, Christine! Studying abroad is an amazing opportunity and I’m so thankful that I got to experience it the way I did!
      And a semester abroad in Greece sounds too good to be true – I can only imagine how much incredible food you ate during that time 🙂

  • Loved reading this. Brought back a lot of memories. I was an exchange student myself (a long time ago in a decade known as the 90s) from Canada to Belgium through Rotary. I was there for almost 12 months when I was 17/18. I was the party guy for the first 5 months or so I was there. I didn’t really attend classes, hung out with mostly other exchange students, etc. I managed to pick French up along the way but it took me a long time to realize thatI as missing so much more. I toned down the partying with other exchangess and tried to immerse myself into the culture a lot more. I still failed from time to time (what else was I going to do on Wednesday afternoon in Liege other than drink with my exchange student friends? 🙂 ) but on the whole I tried to apply myself more. I am so glad that I did.
    This fall I’ll be back in Belgium for the first time in almost 20 years. (I’m old!) Heading back to Liege (Luttich in German if I recall) is something I’m really looking forward to, and also something I’m a bit scared of to be honest. There are such amazing memories, and some rather not so great memories. I hope that revisiting adds to the memories rather than taking something away from them.
    It was the experience of a lifetime for me, and I’m glad I smartened up a little bit at the end to take advantage of it. That said, in November, I’ll be tipping back a Jupiler on a Wednesday afternoon in the Pot au Lait and trying to recapture some of the slightly wilder side I used to have.
    Living in another part of the world is a gift that I recommend highly to most people. Learning how to handle it helped me grow up.
    Thanks for your post. Now I need to look through some old photos!

    • JulikaSarah

      Thank you, Ryan! It sounds like you have the most amazing memories from the time you lived in Belgium! It’s wonderful that you found a balance between going out – after all, you were young and in Europe on your own! – and learning French anyways. I’m sure Liege will always have a place in your heart as Lisbon has in mine! And you are absolutely right – I would recommend studying abroad to every student too. Living in another country for a while is a life-changing opportunity!

  • Great post! I’ve never studied abroad myself, but my boyfriend spent a semester in Singapore during university and totally loved it – it’s one of the reasons why he wanted us to come back to SE Asia (well, back for him, first time for me). Even though it was a few years ago now, he still keeps in touch with a lot of people from the exchange – it seems like you get throw together with an interesting mix of people, and can really make lasting friendships from these kinds of programs, which is an added bonus.

    • JulikaSarah

      Thanks Jess! I can totally understand that your boyfriend wanted to return to the area where he studied abroad – I would go back to Portugal in a heartbeat!
      I also met so many amazing people during this semester abroad and I really love how it made the world a smaller, friendlier place – sometimes it’s really just like “Liechtenstein? Brazil? Finland? Wait, I know someone there who studied in Lisbon with me” 🙂

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  • Ninasafiri

    Great post! I studied in Ankara, Turkey as an Erasmus. It was such an amazing time (I was one of those people not attending classes :-O) but learned the language, engaged in the culture and observed the local life from closely. A great thing about Ankara was that there were not many Erasmus students thus not many Erasmus parties, which meant for us that we had to integrate in the Turkish culture, Turkish party and meet with Turkish people. This was so amazing that I decided to stay there and ended up living in Turkey for 2 years. Afterwards I kind of understood that it wasn’t really smart of me not going to classes, however no regrets and I had a fabulous time. Just like you I can’t party all night every night but the parties that I attended were fun! The traffic light scene is unfamiliar to me and sounds a bit cheap 😉 Oh and from the Netherlands you guess I also received a minimum amount so I actually worked in Turkey as a travel agent which was also a great experience =) Well again, great post!

    • JulikaSarah

      Thanks so much! A semester abroad in Turkey sounds just awesome! I adore the story of how you fell in love with the country so much that you decided to stay longer! That’s Erasmus at its best 🙂

  • I love this post!! I went to Italy while my boyfriend lived in New York. It was tough (5 months is long, but we made it!)

    I miss my semester abroad!

    • JulikaSarah

      Thanks so much, Ashley! Wow from Italy to New York is really long-distance. (Steffen and I only had a one hour time zone difference!) So glad you made it – you are a great example! I miss my semester abroad too 🙂

  • Ashley of Ashley Abroad

    I studied abroad twice, once in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and once in Mallorca, Spain. In both cases I stayed with a host family so I spoke the language a lot- that was a really important aspect for me. But ever since I saw L’auberge espagnole I have been sooo jealous of Erasmus! Not fair!!

    • JulikaSarah

      Staying with a local family is such a great way to get to know the language and culture!
      Oh I still need to see that movie! Erasmus can get quite crazy 🙂

  • Good stuff Julika! Really well-written, I especially love the last bit — the study abroad clichés ARE true, but they don’t have to be if you don’t want them to be. I agree with Christine as well, it’s hard to see all the study-abroad kids just party all the time and not actually learn anything or grow as a person. But I can’t say I didn’t act in a similar way when I was 18 and living in China…and I wouldn’t be here in Paris now if I hadn’t had my experience in China, so I try not to judge (keyword being try!) and hope for the best when I see the students drinking instead of studying!

    • JulikaSarah

      Thank you Edna! This means so much coming from you!
      I absolutely agree with you! Studying abroad is such an amazing opportunity and if you’re partying so much that there is no time to cherish the cultural experience, it’s just sad. Nothing against a little partying, but there is SO much more to a semester abroad!

  • Milla

    What an incredible description of your year abroad. You seem like a really intelligent girl who is also interested to know about the culture and habits and not only partying 🙂 you go girl! Good inspiration!

    • JulikaSarah

      Thank you so much for this sweet compliment, Milla! I really tried to strike a balance between learning and partying during my semester abroad 🙂

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