Very recently I have done a semester abroad with Erasmus and it’s been one of the best experiences of my life. There was so much to learn and gain from so I wanted to share with you all of that and more. My aim with this post is to not only give you insight into how it is to study abroad and tell you about my experiences and what I’ve learned throughout my Erasmus year. But also, to give you practical tips on what you can do and should not do when it comes down to planning and carrying out an exchange studies in a different country. Lastly, I will share with you all my good and bad delicious, what I’d found good and what I’d do better next time, how it changed my life made me a happier person.
One more thing. As I went abroad with Erasmus (which is a European study exchange organisation) and went to Lisbon, Portugal, this post and my experience of course, are dependable on that. That means some points will be very Lisbon and Portugal specific and therefore differ if you go to another country. Also, if you use a different organisation to do it with or do it all by yourself there might be other things you have to take care off, that I don’t mention here. In addition, the effort you should put in and the things you must do vary greatly from university to university. I suggest speaking with the exchange coordinator of your home university about that matter. However, to ensure a benefit for all of you, I of course try to keep it as objective as possible. Now let’s get started.
If you have thought doing an exchange semester or year is coming without effort, I’m sorry to disappoint you. There are quite some things you have to do before, during and after you go abroad. But let me share them with you step by step and at the same time tell you a little bit about my time in Lisbon.
It was clear to me from the beginning of my studies that I was going to spend a semester abroad. I didn’t really care where, because simply love traveling. I only had one condition for choosing the country, it has to be at the beach. As a surfer and absolute summer fanatic, nothing else came into question for me. At the university, I am studying we had two organisations to do an exchange semester with. Erasmus and TUMexchange. Erasmus is only for Europe and TUMexchange is worldwide. I also applied for TUMexchange, however as this is sponsored by the university and not a national organisation spaces are limited and I didn’t get in. Erasmus has more places to offer and changes are pretty high, if not certain that you get a space at one of the four universities you can apply. To pick universities to study at, check the list of partner universities of your home university. I applied to Lisbon and Bath. The application was relatively simple and I was very well supported and led by my university. Basically, you only had to do what they told you to do and then wait.
For planning and preparation, I have to honestly admit, I did very little. I was still busy with the preparations and execution of my internship at that time. For me, however, that was not a problem, as traveling and living abroad is nothing unfamiliar to me. So, I haven’t had any concerns that everything would somehow work out. Be aware though that at this point of your preparation a lot of paperwork and e-mailing can be the case. Depending on how well organized your and the partner university is. Nevertheless, everything always works out somehow and a little faith definitely helps to not stress too much. Because there is really nothing to worry about. Despite my almost non-existent planning and preparation I recommend looking for an apartment in advance. For this there are some helpful pages in the Internet. More on that in a bit though.
About the university and my studies in Lisbon I can say the following.
Disclaimer: Here it’s all about Lisbon, so just because my experiences where like this, know that this can differ from country to country and university to university. In addition, the work load might differ from study field to study field too.
Already weeks before semester start we have received e-mails from the coordinator of the FMH (my university in Lisbon) how everything will work out and an appointment to design our timetable. In the first week, the Welcoming Week, some activities like tours through the university and Lisbon took place. My first impression of FMH was great. I could study here forever. (Small note: This is also the reason why I extended my stay here for another semester). I have never been welcomed with so much openness and helpfulness as here. The coordinator dedicated herself to each one of us and arranged our schedules according to our wishes. There was an Erasmus course which took place in a block seminar and was in English. We were also able to participate in all the practical courses. (This is a big advantage of studying sports). There were all kinds of sports to choose from, which was super awesome. Also, our Buddies and the activities they’ve planned were incredibly helpful and a good opportunity to get to know all the other Erasmus students. As you can see, I was absolutely delighted from the first moment on.
The tests and evaluations are not difficult and all take place in English. The lessons themselves are in Portuguese, at least in the practical courses, but that’s no problem, even if you can’t speak super Portuguese. To be honest, almost none of us Erasmus students could speak Portuguese. The professors and the Portuguese students are super nice and translate everything and help you wherever they can. The learning level is of course very different from Munich, because at FMH the practice is much more in the foreground. Which I personally didn’t find bad at all. Nevertheless, if you have different demands and expectations, you might be disappointed. Erasmus in general, I think, is not there to accumulate a lot of expertise. Of course, you should learn something new, but Erasmus is more about getting together experiences, getting to know another country, studying at another university and building relationships.
As mentioned above, on a technical level you certainly haven’t learned as much as you would have learned at home, but in my opinion that’s not the goal of an Erasmus stay either. On a personal and interpersonal level, however, one learns an incredible amount and develops as a human being in a completely different way, which one could not experience through any other activity than traveling. All these things are indispensable for success in your professional life and can be accomplished in a super way if you study abroad. Therefore, I can only say that I have the expertise, go abroad and gather real experience for the future.
As far as the apartment search is concerned, I have to say that neither my home university nor the FMH were particularly helpful. I think it is generally difficult to find an apartment abroad, when being at home and I have not yet come to a final decision, which is better to look for an apartment in advance or to live first and a hostel and then look on the spot. I guess that differs on how much uncertainty you can cope with personally. I think everyone here has to know for himself what suits him and at the end, things can go only wrong anyway.
The prices and location are great. At least in Lisbon. Of course, it depends totally on where you live. Somewhat outside in Sintra, Carcavelos or Caparica the apartments are cheaper, but you also have another way to the university and transport costs in Portugal are more expensive. Vis versa then in the city centre. Here everybody has to know for himself what is best. For me it was out of question that I will live at the beach. I have to note here that I also had my car with me, so for me further distances were no problem.
Apartments are within the normal range of 300-400€. Food is very cheap, if you cook yourself and transport, as I said, a little more expensive.
What else you spend is again very individual and depends on what you do. However, there are usually always Erasmus tariffs. Asking is always a good suggestion here.
A little note beforehand, I didn’t like the “usual Erasmus life”, that usually consists of a lot of partying, pre-planned trips and hanging out with other Erasmus students. I put my focus more on surfing, adventuring on my own and spending time with locals as I find that more valuable for myself.
I can’t say much about the Erasmus activities at this point, as I hardly participated in any of them. I can only say so much that there are some organisations in Lisbon that care a lot about Erasmus students and have a lot of different offers and organise trips and events. Also, the Buddies and our university have planned events to bring people together. Depending on how you structured your timetable you also had a lot of time to spend on your own or with friends and explore the city, which by the way is absolutely AMAZING. The quality of life for me was a 100 out of 100. I would even go so far as to say that I could live here forever. People are so incredibly friendly and positive, the sun is shining, it’s warm and nature is beautiful. Lisbon as a city is insatiable. There is so much to discover and experience that even after half a year I still discover something new here.
Now that you have a first impression what it takes to study abroad and how my time in Lisbon was, let me share with you some things that were great and some things I would do different next time.
Like mentioned above, I hardly did anything before I went to Lisbon. First because I had no time, second because I love the uncertainty you get out of traveling somewhere unfamiliar. However, there are still some things I should have probably done that would have made the start a little easier.
Like I said, I still don’t know whether it’s best to book your accommodation in advance or look for a place to stay when you are there. I however concluded that it is more relaxed if you know where you’re going before you arrive.
When looking for accommodations you definitely want to check which are the better areas to live in and which are not. Otherwise you might meet an unpleasant surprise.
I suggest going into a shared flat or student accommodation during your exchange. Even if you are used to live alone. That way it is so much easier to get to know people.
Another thing to definitely do before you go is to get to know the area you are going to. Read about the people, the culture and take time to find out what behaviours and do’s and don’ts are.
One thing you should definitely do, especially if you don’t have a car, is to check the transport system. Are there any discounts for students? Is it good and well established or rather not? How can you get around and explore the country as well?
This is optional but you could in advance already read about places to go and explore.
Erasmus can be very money draining. So, if you don’t have that much maybe it’s good to set yourself a budget before you go.
Like I’ve said, planning and preparing is great, but nothing that needs to be stressed about. If you haven’t planned anything, no big deal. Nothing bad will really happen. And most of the time you can’t plan what you don’t know anyway.
The more expectations you have the greater the chances you get disappointed. Even though I doubt you will. But better not have to many so it can only be great.
This goes for before and during as well. Don’t overload your schedule. Erasmus is there not to study but to enjoy!
Take your time to settle in. Use the first week or two to decorate your room nicely and make yourself feel at home. Explore the area and get to know where the public transport stations, supermarkets and best pubs are.
Even if it’s just a couple. That way you can meet new people and prevent FOMO.
You are doing this Erasmus one time in your life (maybe two times), so make the most out of it. Explore. Get out there and see what that country has to offer.
While you are exploring, also go to less remote areas. Go away from the tourist attractions and explore like a local.
Pre-planned trips and adventures are great to meet people and have very little effort, but also go out by yourself and explore the city on your own. Maybe you’ll discover places no one has been before.
Take this opportunity as well to meet new people from all over the world and make memories together. Maybe you’ll meet your new best friends. You never know.
An exchange semester is a great opportunity to really get to know a country. And what better way to do that than through locals?
Many countries like Portugal or Spain are very meat and fish based in their nutrition. So, before you go somewhere to eat, always ask if there is a vegetarian option. Chances are high there isn’t.
In many cities in Europe especially they have special prices for Erasmus students. It’s worth asking.
I’ve told you already, exchange semesters are not there for you to study and learn in the common sense. They are there to experience life outside of university and learn valuable things about life.
No need to stress if something doesn’t go as planned or goes wrong. Bad days are normal even on an exchange. But that doesn’t mean the exchange is bad or you made a mistake by going. Take it as it comes and take such setbacks and hard times as opportunity to learn.
Enjoy every single day you have during your exchange. Make the best out of it and always appreciate how lucky you are to get to do this.
I know I recommended to set a budget, but at the same time I want you to not worry about money too much. Money comes and goes, but this experience is a one in a life time. So better spend those $.
There is no need to see and do everything in the first weeks of your stay. You have months to cover it all, so take it slow.
First, almost everywhere people speak English. Second, you will learn the language quickly if you’re there. Third, there’s always a way to communicate even without words.
Its normal to feel alone sometimes, especially when you got to a place new where you don’t know anyone. But trust me, you will find friends sooner than you can say you’re feeling alone. Just be open.
I know it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the new information and impression. But always remember, there is no need to. Everything is exactly how it’s supposed to be and will turn out the way it should be.
It’s okay to take a break from exploring and adventuring. Take time off if you need and just spend a day in. If you see it that way, you can only miss out because somewhere in this world there’s always something exciting happening. But maybe it wasn’t meant for you, thus there will be equally cool things happen for you.
To sum things up, let me say again how happy this exchange year made me. I’ve learned things I wouldn’t have without. I got to know myself better, found a country I love (maybe even a new home), made friends for life and have a clearer picture in mind of where I want to go. I can only urge everyone to do a semester abroad. As I said at the beginning, it’s the best thing I could have ever done. Studying in Lisbon was so much more fun for me than in Munich and I would definitely not be at the point where I am now, professionally and personally, without these experiences. So, overcome your fear and take this step. You will not be disappointed.
Go out there and explore!
I hope I was able to help you and motivate you to also go on an exchange. If you found this post valuable, feel free to share it with everyone you know who wants to do an Erasmus or exchange in some form.
Also for daily updates about my time in Portugal and my other travels, lets connect on Instagram.