An Honest Erasmus Story: 2020 Edition – Merey (Kazakhstan)

Read this blog post if you consider applying for the Erasmus+ exchange program, hesitate whether you should even bother spending a semester or two in a new international setting, or just seek advice and an honest Erasmus story. Without any further ado, here’s my story of going on Erasmus+ studies in the year 2020. Please, bear with me till the very end. In return, I promise you a genuine narration and an intimate glimpse into my life.

Back in the early spring of 2020, when the pandemic hadn’t fully swept over the entire world, I couldn’t imagine how my Erasmus+ exchange would turn out. After talking to my friends from the Business Administration program about their exchange experience in KU Leuven in Belgium, I just knew I wanted to take this opportunity, despite all the odds. I was not ready to back down and have my plans ruined. I was excited to learn from one of the best partner universities and travel to Belgium, especially since I hadn’t traveled to any of the European countries throughout my whole stay in Estonia. Perhaps, this reflects how much love I have for Estonia (they say commitment is everything!). So, I decided to go for it, and after a lengthy, tedious process of collecting all the documents and applying for a visa as a non-EU citizen, I finally made it to Belgium.

My advice would be to initiate the whole process early on and start preparing all your documents promptly. It does take more time for approval of the learning agreement and issuing a visa than you think it would, specifically due to the delays related to the disruptions the pandemic has caused. I’d like to give special thanks to my faculty exchange coordinator Hanna-Liisa Ennet and Erasmus student exchange coordinator Jaanika Haljasmäe, who tirelessly guided me and assisted me with all the necessary arrangements.

The same goes for finding accommodation in your destination country. Start looking for a place to stay as early as possible because not always the receiving university provides a place in the dormitory. Also, landlords usually are not willing to rent out for a period shorter than 12 months, and a lot of cheap, good rooms at a convenient location are booked way in advance. Kudos to the University of Tartu for having cozy spots in the dorms for both degree-seeking and short-term students!

Alright, but tell us about the exchange university already! During my application for the exchange, I haven’t really considered any other university than KU Leuven. I could choose between 3 campuses of the university in 3 different cities: Leuven, Brussels, and Antwerp. I picked the latter one since the available courses in Antwerp appealed to me the most and were the most compatible with my curriculum. The mistake I made, however, is that I underestimated the difference between the weight of ECTS in the universities and overestimated my capabilities. For example, I took an “Advanced Financial Statement Analysis” course, which amounts to 3 ECTS in KU Leuven, but in reality, it felt more like 6 ECTS, to say the least. Besides, pay attention to the complexity of learning at the receiving university. I’d personally say that studying in the KU Leuven is generally harder and takes more effort. The good thing, however, is that the teaching quality and the content of the study material were mainly on a high level respectively. Just be careful not to overload yourself with too many courses and check for the ‘real’ workload each of them entails.

Of course, pretty soon the pandemic exacerbated the situation, and all my classes were conducted online for the rest of the semester. I’m not going to lie. Online learning without face-to-face teaching on campus sucks because you miss out on connecting with other students and lecturers, which is arguably one of the best parts of the exchange program. Not to mention, it also takes more self-discipline to manage studies. What surprised me, though, is that all final exams at KU Leuven were held strictly on campus to give everyone equal opportunities and ensure fairness. Even though it was kind of a hectic time, the staff of the receiving university exerted their best efforts to welcome exchange students. I wish to express my appreciation and gratitude to my student advisor Rebecca Rampelberg and student counselor Eline Verhagen from KU Leuven for being kind, compassionate, and supportive throughout my whole exchange journey in Belgium!

The transition to online learning was accompanied by the country-wide curfew, limited travel possibilities, closing of shops, bars, restaurants, and tighter restrictions. Unluckily or not, I hadn’t even been to Brussels, although I had spent over 5 months in Belgium. But I still felt like I lived in the heart of Europe, in Antwerp, or maybe the city just stole my heart. Speaking of Antwerp, I admire its vibrant nature and cultural diversity. When you arrive in Antwerp and sense the city vibe, surprisingly, you don’t feel like a foreigner. Amidst the rich mix of African, Asian, Latin American, and European cultures, you almost find yourself home for a moment. The city has a lot to offer, and even just a stroll around the neighborhoods is a thrilling little adventure. I believe some photographs capture the atmosphere the best:

To be completely honest, there’s also a flip side to the coin. With the resurgence in lockdown measures, gradually all the life energy drained out of me and I started struggling with my mental well-being. The pandemic took a toll on me as it did on all of us and I got apathetic, anxious, and had panic attacks for most of the semester. I became unmotivated to study or pretty much do anything, and as a result, failed some courses at KU Leuven. Hence, my Erasmus+ exchange wasn’t the success story I was hoping for, but this in no way is implied to discourage you from applying.

No matter how hopeless or dark the semester has felt to me at times, I wouldn’t want to change a thing and refrain from going abroad in the first place. You will still fall in love with people, places, and ideas you’re about to come across. You will discover cultures, cuisines, and languages and rediscover yourself. You will know the joy of finding new friends and the pain of parting with them “just for now”. You will wonder how you can ever return but miss your home at the same time. One thing for sure, it will be a turning point in your life. If you have thought about studying abroad in the back of your mind, follow your heart! Go out of your comfort zone. Experience and embrace all the positive and negative that come along.

Thank you for reading my blog post to the end! This blog post is dedicated to all my warm-hearted friends, especially Johannes, Lefteris, Harmen, Serena, Andre, John, Nayia, Natália, Alessandro, Sofia, Manuel, Marine, Mara, and Jennifer who I had the good fortune to meet and have fun with during my semester in Belgium. I admire each one of you and I’ve learned from you a lot. You made my stay in Belgium beautiful, and I’m endlessly thankful you were there for me when I needed it the most. I hope our heartwarming memories will last, and we’re going to cherish the wholesome moments we shared. This is not a goodbye, but simply a reminder of how lucky I feel to get to know you.

With love, Merey!

All photos are the courtesy of the author.