The Overseas Series: Kirsten Ross

The latest edition of our Overseas Series comes from Kirsten Ross, who delves into her experiences as an Erasmus exchange student in the stunning city of Venice.

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Photo Credit: Kirsten Ross

Hi, my name is Kirsten Ross and I am a third year St Andrews student of Arabic and Italian currently studying at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice on a full academic year-long Erasmus exchange. I have been lucky enough to find a programme that suits my degree requirements in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Having arrived here way back in September, it feels like a lifetime has passed since I stepped off the plane at Marco Polo Airport with my two almost comically oversized suitcases and my hands shaking with excitement and nerves for what was to come.

So, now almost six months later, let me explain what was waiting for me in Venice and what it has been like to live and study here.

The first thing I will say is that daily life in this collection of man-made islands is unlike daily life in any other city or town. To help articulate my point, let me give an example of an average day here. On weekdays, it is common for classes to start a little earlier than in St Andrews; 8:45 am starts are not unusual here. However, despite the grief of getting out of bed that bit earlier, this scheduling makes for the most beautiful walk to class I have ever (and probably will ever) experience. Void of tourist mobs, and with the breathtaking palaces and bridges glowing in the early morning light, it is hard to miss your bed for too long. Depending on how far you live from the university, your commute may also involve hopping on the only form of public transport available on the islands, the vaporetto, which is essentially a boat bus, where the views of the Grand Canal never get old. On a busy day, you’ll spend all your time in classes or in the library (just like in St Andrews) but on lighter days, there is time to walk around the city and catch up with friends for a coffee or a spritz; a classic staple of the happy hour, or aperitivo here in Italy.

A local friend of mine once described the Italian people to me using the phrase “fuoricasa.” This refers to the fact that many Italians like to spend their days and evenings outside socialising with friends and loved ones in the squares, or as they say in Venice, “campo”, rather than sitting inside watching TV. The streets are always full of life and animated people using gestures to express themselves and greeting each other with a kiss on each cheek, even in the colder weather that I have been experiencing here in the last few months. This aspect of the Italian and Mediterranean culture is very different to what I’m used to in Scotland and it is, in my opinion, a really lovely way to spend your free time.

Typically, the days here are enjoyable, interesting and now that I’ve settled here, even quite relaxing compared to the lifestyle I had at home. That said, each day here is very different from the next, bringing new challenges and successes. On Erasmus there is rarely a dull day, especially in smaller cities like Venice where there is a good network of friendly Erasmus students and staff who work hard to organise regular international events and trips. Without this resource avail able for international students, I truly believe that the experience wouldn’t even be half as good and fulfilling as it is.

So yes, I would wholeheartedly recommend Erasmus or Study Abroad to anyone who is considering it. I would recommend taking advantage of such an amazing opportunity while you have the chance. However, I will say that it’s not all sunshine and roses. While this has been the most rewarding and character-shaping experience of my life so far, it did not come easily. In the beginning, adjusting was very difficult. Aside from the normal and expected feeling of homesickness for friends and family, there is another element in the beginning that can make things difficult, and that is a feeling of isolation. This is something we were briefly warned about at the pre-departure meetings in St Andrews but I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. Now, I want to draw this to the attention of anyone considering study abroad in any capacity, not only on Erasmus. There are many possible factors that can make you feel isolated when moving to a foreign country. Whether it be linguistic barriers, a university system that is hugely different from what we know in St Andrews, or just general unfamiliarity; it’s easy to feel like studying abroad may not seem like all it’s cracked up to be.

However, there are ways to improve your situation and really make the most of your time abroad if you are willing to make the effort to help yourself. First of all, I would say to not put too much pressure on yourself to have an amazing time all the time. Some days will not be great, they might be bad or even terrible. The important thing I have learned is that when this happens, do not to let it affect your overall opinion of your placement or time abroad. Unfortunately, there are negative aspects in everything we do and as much as we try, we can never escape them entirely. But, learning to deal with difficult situations when left to your own devices is an extremely important part of studying abroad.

My second piece of advice would be to meet as many people as possible and make as many friends as you can. The friends that I’ve made here are probably the best part of my Erasmus experience so far, and I imagine that they are what I will miss most when returning to St Andrews in September. Before starting my study abroad placement, I met people who had experienced living abroad on their own before. They would say that having a group of friends who are also living abroad for the first time, for example your fellow international students, can be a crucially important support network. Having now experienced his first-hand, I can attest that there is nothing better than coming home from a long day that seemed like the most confusing one of your life, and being able to vent and talk about it to someone who is in the exact same situation and can understand exactly how you feel.

My final piece of advice may sound quite cliché but it is important to remember, I promise: don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you don’t understand something in your classes, ask your professor or your academic advisor. If you don’t understand the bureaucratic procedures for registration in your host country, go to the office and ask them to explain. I could go on but it’s easy to forget that most of the time, people are quite happy to help you as long as you are polite.

I would just like to conclude by saying that studying abroad may be the best decision you have ever made, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to not underestimate how difficult it can be sometimes. Personally, my own experience was quite extreme. I am the first undergraduate student to come to Ca’ Foscari from St Andrews, studying all my classes in a foreign language and in a department that does not boast a huge amount of Erasmus students at all. As you can probably imagine, coming to Venice without a huge amount of warning about how unusual what I was doing was, and all the while trying to make sure that I was also making friends and enjoying the experience, I felt extremely unprepared for academic life in the first months. It is for this reason that Erasmus has been the most challenging experience of my life so far. However, the fact that I worked hard to catch up with my studies and persisted when things seemed impossible has given me the greatest sense of accomplishment, making the whole thing worthwhile. Now I am able to fully enjoy this time and the new academic and social opportunities that I have been given. Stepping out of my comfort zone like this has been the most formative and overall fun experience of my life, and I would highly recommend it to anyone else who likes a challenge.

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