ESN: An experience just for the International Student?

The Erasmus Student Network works with around 160, 000 students every year and has a network that spreads over 36 countries; which is growing ever year. They advertise their aim as ‘working in the interest of the international student.’

We hear about the ‘student experience’ all the time – going to live in a new country for a semester (sometimes even a year) and it may indeed be a culture shock for some; there are language barriers, culture barriers and new friendships to make.

Then there is the wild partying, the tourist attractions, the extra curricular activities, the sunshine (for some) and then the living way from home…

But what about the 430 institutions that take these students in? I am not talking about the exchange office which is overloaded with applications, module choices and questions – but the lecturers who work there and students who learn there too. Has anybody asked about their experiences?

Mireia Galceran, a journalism student from UPF who has had exchange students in her classes for the past two years says that the impact of different nationalities coming into her university is “all positive. It gives us the opportunity to meet people from other places and enrich our knowledge about other places. Nothing changes in class, the dynamic of the classes and subjects are all exactly the same.”

Universitat Pompeu Fabre in Barcelona is part of this network and was one of the first Spanish universities to offer 100% of their study programmes adapted to EU. They have around 600 exchange students from all over the world each year and offer courses in Spanish, Catalan and English. Mireia is just one of 12,000 students at the university who have exchange students in their classes every year.

Shannon McGurin, a journalism student from Scotland is currently studying at UPF:

“I went on exchange because I wanted to see another part of the world that I had never been to and UPF had great reviews as a university. Barcelona is also a very cultured city and I thought it would be interesting to see how my course (Multimedia Journalism) would be taught in another country. I had also never lived away from home before and this gave me the opportunity to do so.”

At Shannon’s home university, Glasgow Caledonian University, she also has had exchange students in her class like Mireia:

“In my second year at university I met two exchange students, one from America and one from Madrid, and I got to hear about their experiences – if they never came over then the idea wouldn’t have been in my head in the first place. Having exchange students in my class didn’t affect any of my classes as such but there was a certain language barrier when partnered up them – often just because of the difference in terms taught in our home universities. This didn’t put me off though.”

After only two months at UPF, she has already begun to see how it is not only her, and her new friends, that have had struggles adapting to new cultures:

“I think for the lecturers who originally speak Catalan and not English, it makes it harder for them because they have to switch between different languages in class. They don’t make it look too difficult but I couldn’t do it myself. In one of my classes, the majority is taught in Catalan so often the lecturer has to translate it into English for the exchange students who don’t speak the language. However, we aren’t treated any differently so I don’t think it affects the other students too much.”

Mònika Jiménez-Morales is the researcher and lecturer who runs the class Shannon is speaking about, “This is the first year I teach in English and it has been a bit crazy. I have 22 foreign students in the class but it is not the quantity that is the problem.”

Mònika’s background is in Advertising and the impact it has on teaching children and teenagers, etc, although this year she is running an Event Communication module which has been more popular than first antisipated. She has found herself teachering international students from all sorts of backgrounds; journalism, audiovisual communication, business, translation, to name just a few. And that is not the only problem.

“The foreign students in my class come from different backgrounds but they have also come from universities with different teaching methods, teaching which is more direct than the Catalan way. I have had to adapt the way I teach, not only the language I teach in but the methods I use too. The course was, to start with, created for Catalan students also – using Catalan clients for example. This is something that we can improve.”

However, besides all these ‘teething’ problems, Monika says there are lots of positives:

“I am completely happy to be teaching exchange students, I have learned a lot as well as them. For the other students in the class that I had been teaching since they started at UPF they did get a bit of a shock when I came in speaking English to them instead of Catalan!”

Lecturers are trying their best to adapt their teaching methods to the increasing number of exchange students without affecting their own students learning but maybe there is still some way to go. The difference in levels of teaching across the European Union stands out in exchange prorgrammes as well as the different ways of teaching. For example in the United Kingdom topics are taught more directly than they are in Spain – which can become confusing for students if it is something they are not used to.

Cecilie Bang-Jensen, an exchange student from Denmark says:

“My experience at UPF is overall good – the social stuff going on and the classmates (both Erasmus and local) are very good! I am a bit disappointed about the difficulty level in some classes though because I am used to a higher level. The level of English from the teachers is unfortunately very poor. Sometimes the teachers are even asking us students how to spell something or how to say something.”

However, in many cases it is all about adapting. Nuria Almiron who is the Head of the Faculty of Communication at UPF as well as the coordinator of mobility for the department can defend her colleagues:

“Teachers who teach in English are doing so because they are eager to do it; they want to do it. We cannot force them to teach in a language which isn’t their own! Teaching in English usually means they like having Erasmus exchange students and having different international nationalities in their classrooms.”

“Classes are affected a lot by the Erasmus students though, for example, if you use a lot of local examples it can make it difficult for the Erasmus to understand, sometimes you can explain it but other times you need to know the culture and the background. You have to be attentive to this, and sometimes with jokes as well – sometimes jokes refer to culture or there are jokes about other nationalities so you have to be careful who is in your class!”

“We have around 200-250 lectures and have around 800 students in our department. The exchange students added to this has increased massively, in particular journalism studies because the oportunity wasn’t there until 2 years ago. We have been quite successful though because we send out around 30 students and receive more than that.”

As pointed out, the number of Erasmus students in increasing all the time, but around 12% every year to be exact, so the experience of the International Student surely must be affected by the increasing demand and pressure put on the universities involved.

Alina Kozlovska is another exchange student studying in UPF, this time from Latvia:

“I guess going on exchange is one of the nice opportunities that our generation are able to use so I didn’t think twice when deciding to come. I don’t feel like the exchange students had an impact on us back home, although some of our lectures were taught in English that we are allowed to attend if we wanted.”

“I think the UPF teachers are excellent, everybody is really friendly and if you compare them with my home university they are more open, positive, more cheerful – maybe just because of the sunny weather in Spain! It doesn’t feel like I am going to be here for long enough!”

Nowadays becoming a lecturer isn’t all about your research and knowing your subject, it is also about your intercultural skills and language. It is about adapting yourself to suit hundreds of cultures, understandings and opinions. It is about learning from each other, networking with each other in this global world of ours.

So, the Erasmus Student Network isn’t just an experience for the 160, 000 ‘International Students’ they send abroad every year but is also a whole new experience for the 36 countries, 430 institutions and the millions of students around Europe.

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