Exchange Student: “It’s Once In a Lifetime, But the Moments are Forever”
Urtė Šilinskaitė, third-year BA student of Career and Professional Consulting at Vytautas Magnus University, is currently studying on exchange at the University of Aveiro in Portugal. Describing her first impressions and experiences of student exchange, Urtė offers a firsthand account on why this has been one of the best things to happen to her, how the Portuguese people differ from Lithuanians, and why it’s sometimes good to be late.
August 26th. Date of flight to the land I had not seen before – Portugal. It‘s scary, but I am not alone, my course-mate Laura is with me. At first, everything is foreign, strange, we don’t know where to go or ask for help. But we know the language, so we find the courage to step into this new world. Two flights, fear of not making it to the plane on time, exceeded luggage weight – that was just the beginning of our adventure.
When we reach Porto, we are lucky: we have some instructions on how to reach our new home from the airport. They are very detailed, with pictures (one Portuguese man made the description of the trip back in Lithuania, and we never saw him!). So we get to Aveiro, our home city to-be. We’re not alone; our new “buddy” welcomes us and leads to the university dorms, our place to stay for now.
We’re happy; we’re the first to occupy the dorm rooms. However, we are cut off from civilization: there is no Internet and we’re separated from the city by a pedestrian bridge. Still, we didn’t get scared. Our hearts, open to the world, pushed us forward every day, to go further and find out more, get to know the town, observe the locals, etc.
Intense and Memorable First Weeks
Since we are Campus Europae students, it was compulsory for us to take intensive courses of Portuguese. And intensive they were! For two weeks in a row, every morning we had to cross that horrible pedestrian bridge (we hated it so much), attend a 6-hour lecture and learn a new language. Going home after each lecture was as hard as after manual labour.
But there was a bright side to all of this. Since the school year had not begun yet, only Campus Europae students were taught, which is why we became closer as a group. These 25 students are great. Even the difficult lectures of Portuguese were fun: the alien language did not frighten us and we tried to get the hang of it with a smile. The intensive course was followed by leisure activities and cultural trips. It was great to discover and integrate into Portugal, to know that we are not alone, that someone is protecting and taking care of us.
Those first weeks were the most memorable to me. We’d make a new discovery every day. Now, four months since arrival, I can say with certainty that I am home. I live with a family, and I share my daily life with them. I have friends who are always incredibly fun to spend time with. I have some duties I try to always carry out on time. This is definitely my home. Life keeps moving along without stopping. There’s always something to do: each time you visit Facebook there’s already a bunch of invitations for the evening… but more on that later.
Portugal: Everyone is Late, Nights Full of Life
The University of Aveiro is modern, and has its numerous faculties spread around a large area. There are plots of grass around where you can relax when you get tired of learning. Bicycle paths are everywhere, because walking from one faculty to another takes a lot of time. Having a bike is really great, and you don’t even have to buy it, you can use public bikes which ride really well on the paths of Aveiro.
As for the lecturers and the Portuguese people in general, it is of note that they’re definitely not punctual at all. Sometimes you have to wait even longer than 30 minutes. It’s ill-advised to leave class before waiting for an hour, otherwise it might mean you’re skipping it. So we’d sit on the floor or in some comfortable corner and wait for the lecturer who is in no rush to get there. This may not be good, especially in Lithuania, but here it is – I’ve learned to be late and never rush anywhere. In Portugal, it’s actually quite helpful to be late sometimes.
The Portuguese lifestyle is interesting. What I found the weirdest was that nights are full of life. Supper is late at night, bars and coffee shops start getting crowded well after 11 p.m. Little children run around as if it was daytime, and drink coffee without caffeine. They enjoy coffee really often. Nevertheless, it’s great, because we’ve learnt to live by night as well.
We’ve also learnt that no matter how badly hunger is tormenting you for lunch, and no matter how much you want to just take and eat food you didn’t make yourself, it’s not always possible. There are designated meal times – you’ll be served if you’re hungry after 12 p.m. Otherwise you could receive unpleasant welcome and be treated to a quickly made sandwich. This happened to us once, too – we were simply denied entrance to one coffee shop, and were offered to choose only salad in another one. Live and learn, as they say – and that is what we do.
One of the Best Choices Ever
It’s very important to point out that the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) takes care of us, international students. It’s a team of great, brave, outgoing, lively students. Most of them had also spent several months of their lives studying abroad. They’re happy and ready to share their experience. They know the problems you may face and they try to take care of them. They also try to have fun, and they’re quite good at that. Fun parties till dawn, various trips and a lot of patience while helping students handle the paperwork or academic affairs in general, etc. They’re good people.
But don’t think it’s all about partying and travelling. Just like everywhere, you have to learn. And the language is also foreign to us. Sometimes the lecturers look at you like you’re an alien who has dropped from the sky. Local course-mates are afraid to speak in English, especially to us, people from another country. But we complete our tasks together, sometimes after 20 attempts, both during and after classes. Of course, like most students we often finish our assignments at the last minute. We’ve done that already. You’re not a student if you’ve never sacrificed your sleep on the last night before deadline. After all that hard work, the exam session comes – it is short, just a few exams, but translation takes a lot of time. Google Translate comes in handy here.
At the moment, some exchange students are leaving and others are replacing them. It’s sad to say goodbye, because you don’t know if you’re ever going to see them again. But being here is fascinating. Yes, I miss my family, my friends, my lecturers, even neighbours! But, knowing that I’ll soon come back home to Lithuania, that my friends will be very happy to visit me, and that this was a great trip, lesson and experience, I realize that becoming an exchange student was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. Student exchange is once in a lifetime, but the moments are forever! Don’t you want to experience that as well?..
Best wishes from the sunny Portugal!
More photos from Urtė’s Campus Europae experience in Portugal can be found here.