Currently, I am sat at the airport on my way back to Amsterdam for the beginning of semester two. Circling my mind I have so many thoughts about the last four months, which prompted me to write a post to reflect on my first semester abroad.
Before coming to study at the University of Amsterdam I had heard that there were differences when it came to academia, some of which I learnt before I even arrived. However, I would say that university here is more different than I initially expected which resulted in me struggling a little at the start. Therefore, I decided it would be a good idea to write a blog post about it to prepare other students who want to study here.
By Georgi Fogarty (University of Queensland, Australia)
After 12 months on the other side of the world, a lot of people I had met on exchange were openly excited to get back to their own country, home and family. However, I was not ready to accept the fact that my year away might finally be over and decided to further postpone my trip back to the UK (much to my parent’s despair). I found myself splitting up the journey with a 7-week long stopover beginning in Athens, where I would catch an overnight ferry to a small Greek Island, Leros. Spending over a month here was to be a very interesting experience, partly due to the island’s incredibly speckled and prominent history.
Leros is not exactly renowned for being a tourist hotspot, despite being close to party islands Kos and Rhodes. The island is only around 30 square miles, which meant that the strangeness of the living history was condensed and intensified. Looking in any direction had the tendency to blow your mind. Going back around 100 years, Leros was occupied by Italians and was used primarily as an army base during the early 20th century, with many buildings constructed to house Italian soldiers. These are now mostly used as shelter for sheep, however the paintings done over 100 years ago by Italian artists remain in crumbling buildings up in the hills. These are easily accessible by a short hike and are completely riddled by bullet holes – mostly from the British. Additionally to the troops’ stations, an extremely grandiose mansion was built in preparation for a visit from Italian dictator Mussolini. Mussolini never visited the island, but the house is still intact (if not slightly worse for wear after 80 or so years’ neglect). Everywhere you look on the island there is unmoved debris from the second World War; my friends and I took a boat trip out to an even smaller nearby island and I dived from the boat into the clear blue water only to find myself face-to-face with a 4 foot wide rusted bomb shell sitting in the shallows. This was a fairly common occurrence.
The strangely prominent relics of Leros’ past don’t stop at bomb shells though; after the second World War, Athens’ mental asylums became incredibly overcrowded and patients were shipped over in their boatloads to Leros. Buildings that were formally used to house prisoners of war and were allegedly used as concentration camps were transformed into an asylum, which operated until the late 1990’s when a reporter shot an exposé of the conditions inside. The conditions were horrific, with over 3000 patients having died in the asylum. Mentally and physically disabled patients were often chained up and deprived of clothes; the staff were residents of the island with no medical training. The asylum and buildings surrounding it still stand (neighbouring Mussolini’s house) and are completely accessible.
I went to explore out of morbid curiosity and was met with what looked like a set from a horror film from the 60s. Empty bed frames, medical journals and medicine bottles lay amongst dead pigeons and peeled wallpaper – unsurprisingly, I didn’t stick around for long.
What may be more haunting than the asylum itself though is what now lies in the old courtyard. As Leros is only a few kilometres away from Turkey, it’s a common first step towards gaining sanctuary in Europe for refugees. On such a small island, over 10% of the population is now refugees. Crowded boats arrive weekly having made the perilous journey from the shores of Turkey. The main camp for the refugees is now in the grounds of the abandoned asylum; a sprawling cluster of storage containers, each housing up to 10 people.
In the time I was on Leros, I had the pleasure of getting to know many of the refugees that were living on the island. For many of them, their stay there was just a waiting game; the average length of time that they wait on the island while the Greek government is processing their claim for asylum has increased from a matter of days, when the borders were open, to a year. During this period they legally cannot leave the island. I can’t say too much on the topic of Greek immigration laws, only what I have learnt from the people I have met, but it seems like an incredibly long process that can go one of a few different ways: acceptance (meaning that they are able to leave the island for Athens) or rejection. After one rejection, they are able to apply for asylum again, however after the second rejection they are usually put into jail and risk being deported. On top of this, there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern for who gets rejected or accepted, which makes waiting for the answer even more painstaking. Witnessing professors, doctors, architects, students and people from many other walks of life waiting in limbo from a decision that could make or break their immediate future was a harsh reality check to say the least. This, altogether with the intense and brutal history of the island made my stay there an extremely strange and extremely eye-opening time. Having said that, I definitely plan to return – just one more year of university to get through before any more jetsetting, though!
Abigail Herd (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)
The 17th September marked a month of my time in Amsterdam, a city which I am now proud to call home. Within a month of being here I have completely fallen in love with the city, country and people.
Alice Logan, University of Copenhagen, English Literature and American Studies
Firstly, as a disclaimer we all know that Copenhagen is an insanely expensive city to live in, however having spent five months there I did find some handy ways to save some pennies for summer travelling ☀️
Alice Logan, English and American Studies, University of Copenhagen
Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world and after exploring Copenhagen one coffee shop at a time, I can see why! Below are a few of my absolute favourite coffee shops…
Pilestræde 32, 1112 København
Tucked away down an unassuming side street just off Norreport station you’ll find 42Raw, one of Copenhagen’s plant based coffee shops. Their expansive menu ranges from açai bowls and raw smoothies to lentil burgers and peanut butter milkshakes. Try the raw chocolate chip cookies and the beetroot latte for a light snack or the vegan lasagnaee which is life changing.
Alice Logan, English Literature and American Studies, University of Copenhagen
After completing the first half of my semester abroad I thought I’d do a blog post on the differences between studying in England vs Copenhagen, as the scandi culture seems to have a massive influence on the way that the Danes study and has changed my approach to studying.
As a former exchange student and a student with a disability, I thought I knew all there was to know about the funding and support available to disabled students, but alas I was wrong. Indeed, there are more options than I first thought.
When I decided I wanted to go on exchange, I was adamant I did not want to study in Europe and instead wanted to go as far away as possible, as I felt this would make the most of my time away. Since I have been back, I have found out more about the options available in Europe, which are particularly helpful to those who feel they would be unable to study abroad due to their health condition, without the help of additional funding. Whilst I am fortunate that my disability proved fairly unproblematic, as I didn’t have to transport equipment or copious different medications, had I realised the benefits to staying in Europe, I might have given it a chance.
Firstly, is the additional funding available through Erasmus+. Not only are you entitled to the Erasmus grant, but you are also able to apply for a higher amount to help cover additional costs arising as a result of your health. Whilst there is no absolute guarantee that you will be awarded this additional sum, it is worth considering, especially as there is no set limit of funding through this avenue.
Secondly, is ‘other funding’. This is quite difficult to access information on but worth exploring. For some courses, it is possible to obtain funding from private bodies, notably Google have scholarships for technology-based degrees, but there will be different options available to you, depending on your course. It is also worth contacting different societies (e.g. the Epilepsy Society) and charities to see if they are able to help. It isn’t always possible, but you may find they are able to help, especially if you are willing to promote their cause.
Thirdly, is proximity to home. As I have already mentioned, I wanted to get as far away as possible and it is absolutely possible to do this with a disability or health condition. This said it is worth thinking about the likelihood of problems with your health- if you are really unwell its much easier to fly home for the weekend, or for a hospital appointment if you are in Poland compared with New Zealand!
Finally, is the law (sorry, I am a law student, so it had to be said!). Although the laws in European countries do differ, there is a greater consistency when compared to other parts of the world. There are some clear benefits of European laws, including the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of disability (EU Charter of Fundamental Rights) and the protection of rights of persons with disabilities (UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities). Interestingly, the EU is currently contemplating a European Accessibility Act, which aims to increase accessibility for all, but with a particular focus on education, which could make a huge difference to those with disabilities and health conditions studying in Europe. Of course, there are many countries with disability legislation of their own and so this maybe be unproblematic, but I would really recommend having a look at the protections legislation can offer you in your desired country. Remember, what is considered a disability in the UK may not be considered a disability in another country!
There is definitely more to consider when applying to study abroad when you have a disability or long-term health condition, but it doesn’t make it impossible. The greatest advice I can offer to students thinking of embarking on an exchange is to first disclose your condition to the university and more specifically the exchange office and secondly, to really consider all options. I have friends who studied in Europe and absolutely loved their time there- it doesn’t really matter where you go, it is what you do with your time that will shape your exchange.
Alice Logan, English Literature and American Studies, Univeristy of Copenhagen
After just two weeks in Copenhagen, I already feel at home in this beautiful city and am slowly acclimatising to the depths of Danish winter. I defy anyone to not have positive first impressions of this incredible city. Copenhagen boasts beautiful architecture, both modern and Renaissance, canals to rival Amsterdam, a multitude of ornate gardens and the most beautiful harbour that’s so colourful it can cheer you up even when the sky is grey (which it is 90% of the time).
A lot have people have asked me why I decided to study abroad in Europe. Admittedly, I am incredibly jealous of everyone who has been able to experience life in an exotic far-off land, especially from the @uomgoabroad Instagram page. However, coming towards my time here in Europe I have never been so glad I picked Amsterdam, and I thought you all deserved to know why..
The way the grading system works in Amsterdam, takes some getting used to compared to back in Manchester. Exam period has just been here in Amsterdam. Therefore, I thought it would be useful to note the main differences I have experienced in my time here.
Mitch, second year, studying English Literature at Freie Universitaet Berlin
I’m just going to come right out and say it: a literature BA from FU Berlin, while similar in some ways, is actually very different (in this blogger’s opinion) from the version of the degree you get from, for example, Manchester.