Overseas Series: Matthew Cregan

German and Economics student Matthew Cregan shares his hints and tips on Erasmus exchanges while experiencing a semester in the Austrian capital, Vienna.


Let me introduce myself. My name is Matthew, I’m from Northern Ireland, and for this semester I have decided to put my St Andrews life on hold to head off on a study abroad adventure to the University of Vienna. I study Economics with German, so I’m taking classes for both subjects here (with Economics classes available in English, phew!). I’ve gone against the usual path for Modern Languages students and am only abroad for one semester.

I chose to study abroad instead of doing a British Council placement because no one could pay me to become a teacher — and so that I could graduate with my friends. So, I waved goodbye to Castlecliffe and the Buchanan Building for a semester in the Austrian capital and cultural hub of Vienna.

After an overextended Christmas holiday — from the end of December to the start of March — I was definitely fed up with sitting at home. So when finally the day of my departure arrived, of course, so did the snow. While friends in St Andrews were enjoying a few days off class because of the “Beast from the East,” I was stuck in Dublin Airport with days of flight cancellations ahead of me. This meant that I ended up missing my first few days of classes which, although stressful at the time, didn’t matter too much after a reassuring email from a sympathetic professor.

A day in the life of a student in Vienna involves heading to the main University building in the morning where most of my classes are held and where the library can be found. Getting to class and heading about the city is super easy because of the U-Bahn. I divide my day between sitting in lectures or tutorials and preparing tutorial questions for class — not too different from St Andrews! I’ve found the workload to be slightly heavier here, and I take seven different classes — each one is just worth a lot less than at home. That seems like a lot, but classes have been going well so far, and I’ve been able to get to know some of my classmates.

A typical evening will be spent either preparing work for class, getting to bed early before classes that start at 8 am or heading out to local restaurants or bars for a catch up. I’ve come to really enjoy a Spritz or two! Time management is crucial to make sure I keep up with all my work while actually maintaining a social life. At the weekends I’ve been using the free time to catch up on work, meet up with friends, and travel a bit. A big advantage of Vienna’s central location in Europe is that it’s easy to travel by train to other major European cities. So far, I’ve been to Prague and Bratislava, and will hopefully be travelling to Budapest and Salzburg soon.

Although my biggest fear about coming here was that I wouldn’t meet many people or make many friends, I’m enjoying quite a busy social life. There are lots of other exchange students in Vienna between the main University I attend and the Business University. A group of fellow Erasmus students from the UK have been meeting up regularly, which really helped at the beginning as we shared tips about how to manage Vienna life, navigate the intimidating bureaucracy or find the best restaurants and cafes. This really helped me feel properly settled in from early on.

It also helps that Vienna is such an amazing city. Mercer voted Vienna the world’s most liveable city for the ninth year in a row and I can understand why! Vienna boasts an unrivalled public transport system, lots of parks and green space and amazing food. I’ve certainly enjoyed my fair share of Kaffee and Kuchen, especially Apfelstrudel, or of course the traditional Wiener Schnitzel. I’ll definitely miss the food when I leave! The warm weather is another highlight — as much as I miss St Andrews, the cold weather I can do without.

Vienna is a beautiful city steeped in history offering a wide variety of museums and esteemed cultural institutions. One of my first experiences here was a visit to the grand State Opera for a performance of “Danton’s Tod” with other Erasmus students. I’ve also enjoyed visiting Schönbrunn Palace, Stephansdom and the Hofburg Palace. One of my highlights so far is having friends from home coming over to visit and having the chance to share this with them.

Yet some things stay the same wherever you are — I didn’t necessarily expect to spend St Patrick’s Day in an Irish Pub watching the Six Nations, but it happens.

I’ve loved the chance to embrace my independence and strike out on my own. While life in Vienna certainly isn’t lonely, living on my own has its challenges. A great idea is having friends come round to cook together in the evenings — it helps save money as well, which is a good idea in such an expensive city.

Even though it was intimidating that I was the only St Andrews student heading to the University of Vienna this semester, because it’s a big city it’s been relatively easy to meet lots of people. There’s more opportunities to attend social events run by the Erasmus Network than I could possibly keep up with. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, societies are not a thing here, so you do become reliant on your Erasmus friends.

There are of course things that are difficult to get used to living in a different country, like dealing with a special Viennese passive aggressiveness on the underground or the fact that every shop closes on a Sunday. Coming from a rural background and moving to St Andrews, living in a city was a first for me. Though at first it was overwhelming, I’ve enjoyed the hustle and bustle of city life where life moves at a faster pace than in our sleepy town in Fife.

Although part of why I wanted to study abroad was the chance to really practice my language skills with natives on a daily basis, that hasn’t really happened too much. Vienna is a very international city and by that, I mean literally everyone speaks English! At even the slightest hint of weakness in my German any waiter or cashier worth their salt will immediately move into English, for my convenience…of course! On top of this, I haven’t yet met many actual Austrians, which is disappointing. I’ve also had a bit of difficulty with the Austrian dialect of German — I’ve found some of my lecturers hard to understand because of this, but I struggle on!

After the debacle of my departure, if you’re going abroad, make sure to leave enough time in case of travel delays and to get your bearings before the semester kicks off. Most importantly, don’t go unprepared! The most helpful way I learnt about what life in Vienna would actually look like was through speaking to people who went last year. Through them I figured out the best classes to take, and how to deal with the bureaucracy. I would love to know who decided to ban all jackets and bags from libraries, and don’t even get me started on the printing!

Moreover, you’ll have to endure the trials of the St Andrews grade conversion system where although my grades here count directly towards my degree, everyone else on Erasmus enjoys the good life of only having to pass half their modules. It’s important not to forget this, and not to judge how much studying to do based on what everyone else is doing!

Overall, despite the inevitable gripes about bureaucracy, I would wholeheartedly recommend the Erasmus experience to anyone who’s considering it! One thing I’ll definitely miss is the fact that every time you leave your front door in Vienna it’s an adventure! Every day is different, and this quirky city still has plenty of surprises to throw at me.


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