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Students may go abroad to make merry, have fun and let loose. But they also seek to improve skills, boost career chances and to find themselves, study shows
A long, paid-for, student holiday in another European city with an endless row of parties: This is what students and the media associate with the Erasmus exchange programme.
As German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung recently reported back from a German student in Ireland: »When Daniel talks about his study in the town of Limerick, it sounds more like a vacation«.
But according to a new study, international students in Copenhagen combine an intense social life with serious responsibilities.
Fieldwork by Kathrine Bruun Thomsen of the Saxo Institute/European Ethnology for her dissertation confirmed that students experience their stay abroad as a ‘liminal’ period: A concept from anthropology meaning a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behaviour are relaxed.
»Your parents are not there. Your friends are not there, and you are removed from your normal place for a limited time period. This is liberating. In a sense it is only here that you first become a student, and really engage with student life«, says Kathrine Bruun Thomsen.
The liminal period is actually not, (or not only), stumbling from one big party to the next.
”This, the big party, is actually a prejudice that they generate about themselves within the Erasmus group. But when I asked how they themselves acted in reality, it was a different story: It was also about serious study. So we have to be careful when we say that they come to Denmark just to drink themselves into the ground”, Kathrine Thomsen says.
As a female Belgian student explains in the study:
»We are partying a lot, but you have to work. We are working as well. The teachers will not give you the grades just because you are an exchange student«.
The Erasmus programme for the exchange of students in Europe was founded more than 20 years ago, and is considered by the EU to be one of its most successful programmes. In the EU understanding, students are made autonomous and responsible for themselves through Erasmus. According to Kathrine Bruun Thomsen, the EU sees the students as ‘entrepreneurial subjects’, creating networks with other European citizens.
But this is not the whole story, Kathrine Thomsen says.
»Actually neither the stereotype of Erasmus students as the big party-goers nor the EU notion of responsible networkers is complex enough to explain the students’ behaviour«, she says.
The students stay abroad is an educational rite of passage, a trip that both educates and forms you into an individual. The ‘liminal’ experiences are part of the student’s education. Erasmus sets you free, but at a price. Being an exchange student meant new obligations towards themselves.
”The students feel that they are set free and are physically removed from the society that they know. But paradoxically, the students understand themselves as having a new responsibility, the responsibility to get something out of their experience and their studies as possible”, explains Kathrine Thomsen.
Students pointed out to her that part of the reason they were in Copenhagen was to improve language skills and further their careers. This does not fit with the party.
”A Spanish student said for example that one of the reasons he had stopped going to the Wednesday international bar evenings at the Studenterhuset, was that it would adversely affect his concentration in class the following day”.
Maybe the Erasmus stereotype needs some revising.