This week has been very difficult and sad for many of us. Even writing that feels like a ridiculous understatement, but I don’t know what else to say. Those of us working and studying at UK universities are worried (among many many other worries) about our colleagues and our students from outside the UK, and the futures of our students who want to live and work in other countries. We’re also concerned about our own future funding opportunities, as the terms of the new relationship with the EU may affect what funding is available for UK research; arts and humanities subjects will be among the most affected by any loss of funding. So far we just don’t know, and that’s a major problem.
Last week’s events have made me reflect not just on my future plans, but on the benefits and opportunities the EU has brought me in the past. The most obvious direct benefit was my time in the Erasmus programme in 2012. I wanted to share my experiences here.
The Erasmus Programme is an EU exchange student programme that has been in existence since the late 1980s. Its purpose is to provide foreign exchange options for students from within the European Union and it involves many of the best universities and seats of learning on the continent. The programme is aimed at cross-border cooperation between states to aid the growth of international studying, and with over 4000 students involved in the programme at any one time it offers an excellent chance of experience abroad.
In around the middle of 2011, I was trying to figure out how I was going to put together an extended period of PhD fieldwork in Italy. Access to Italian museums and sites can be sporadic and difficult to arrange, so it seemed best to go for a longer period of time – but I wasn’t sure how to make that work logistically. One day, I happened to get an email from the university International Office advertising Erasmus places for PhD students – and several Italian universities were on the list!
I considered Siena and Perugia as possible places to study, but in the end, on my supervisor’s advice, I decided on Ca’ Foscari, Venezia, where there were several experts working in my field. I applied through the Cambridge International Office, and (incredibly) I was accepted as an Erasmus research student at Ca’ Foscari the same day. The Eramus Office at Ca’ Foscari sent me an information pack, arranged my accommodation in student halls and signed me up for their “Meet a Mate” buddy programme. I was all set.
In the end, I spent five months as an Erasmus student in Italy. About six or seven weeks of that time ended up being spent on research trips in Rome and the south, but I had plenty of time studying and researching in Venice. I attended seminars and talks, and even gave one seminar, at the Classics faculty, and got to know the students and staff there. In particular, I worked a lot with Olga Tribulato, a brilliant linguist who had previously taught me in Cambridge. I was invited back to give another seminar in 2015, and we’re still in regular contact.
I made a truly international new group of friends in Venice, including students and museum staff from Italy, Austria, Germany, the US and Colombia. I also met Fiona Mowatt, from the University of Edinburgh, a Roman archaeologist who became a good friend of mine. When we got back to the UK, we organised several conference talks and panels during 2012 and 2013 on ancient Italy burial practices.
I won’t pretend that absolutely everything was perfect all the time. In fact, my first night in Venice was probably the worst night of non-sleep of my entire life. I arrived into the coldest winter Italy had had in 30 years, it was -10C outside, and my room had no heating or blankets (it was the weekend, and they hadn’t quite got everything ready for me). I’ve never been so cold in my life. On the plus side, I wrote quite a substantial proportion of my PhD in the Classics library at Ca’ Foscari during that January and February – the library was a lot warmer than my room!
Despite the cold, that winter was amazing. I went to the Venice Carnival, just wandering over to San Marco when I felt like it. A lot of people hate Venice if they only visit it for a day or to, because San Marco is so crowded – but living there for months, I got to know all the fun studenty areas and the quiet places where the short-term tourists don’t go.
In March, I travelled to the British School at Rome, and then onwards to the South, where I saw all the inscriptions I was studying for my PhD. And in April I was back in Venice, enjoying much better weather writing up everything I’d seen. Friends and family visited (of course) and I showed them all my favourite spots around the city.
My specific experiences aside, the Erasmus programme is an amazing opportunity. Firstly, they really try to make sure that you are not put off going for financial reasons. You are given a stipend while you are away for your living costs, and you do not pay any additional fees. You are also given extra money for language courses before your time abroad starts (I ended up using the money to hire a private tutor, as at the time I could read Italian but not really speak it.) They will help you arrange accommodation and travel, if you want them to, so that you know your stipend will cover your costs.
Not everyone realises that PhD students are eligible for Erasmus, and it’s actually a perfect time to do it. You don’t have to attend classes or take exams unless you want to, so you can concentrate on your research and language skills. If you need to do research in another country, like I did, then Erasmus can support you in doing that. Erasmus is also available to young people who are not university students, through volunteering and internship opportunities, and to teachers in schools and higher education. And you don’t have to be an EU national – you just have to be a student at a participating institution. You can find more information about all the opportunities on their website.
If you’re a PhD student and you’re reading this, I’d really encourage you to think about signing up for Erasmus. It’s a fantastic opportunity, and I guarantee it will be one of the best things you do during your PhD. I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments, or on twitter, if you want to know more about my experiences. If you are an undergraduate, or a teacher, or a young person looking for volunteering opportunities, you should definitely sign up to – you’ll find other people on the internet who’ll be able to tell you about their Erasmus experiences too, I’m sure.
There was some suggestion on twitter the other day that it was unfair of me to encourage UK students to apply for Erasmus if we are leaving the EU. I don’t agree with that, for two reasons. Firstly, we don’t know at this stage whether our participation in Erasmus will be affected: there is a long list of non-EU countries and institutions which take part, and UK universities may join them. Like so many other things, we just don’t know at this stage, and if UK institutions stay in the Erasmus programme I will be very pleased. Secondly, even if these opportunities might be taken away eventually, we should all keep participating in these European projects and building bridges across Europe for as long as we can. No matter what happens, this is a good time for all of us to talk about our EU experiences, and to keep being active European citizens while we can.