Have you ever walked around campus and heard a language you weren’t familiar with? As a French exchange student this experience would be normal to me since I don’t understand either Finnish or Swedish. But if you listen closely, you might notice that all those unfamiliar languages are in fact German, Spanish, French, or even Japanese.
Before coming to Jyväskylä, I had this naïve idea that once in Erasmus, I would only talk in English, and after a few months I would be able to interact in Finnish, at least for small talk with locals.
The reality is very different. Most exchange students here in Jyväskylä only hang out with people from their own country, and therefore only speak their own language. If you don’t believe me, take a walk around Roninmäki on a Wednesday evening, and in a few minutes you will find either a French or a Spanish party organized in one of the buildings.
Those types of gatherings are so common that it has become a cliché. Many people have told me stories about their exchange experiences where, no matter what the country was, there was a French student group that didn’t really socialize with locals or people from other countries.
The idea here is not to blame those people, but instead try to understand them and also ask ourselves if one can really enjoy the full Erasmus experience without interacting with people from other cultures.
A number of students even say that they’re not here to socialize but only to validate one criteria of their curriculum and get their diploma.
The Erasmus+ program is organized around four areas: education, training, youth work and sports, which are, according to the European Commission, the “key to promote common European values, foster social integration, enhance intercultural understanding and a sense of belonging to a community”.
Following those guidelines, one may think that the first step to share common European values would be to understand European cultures. And what better way to do this than to interact with others?
I’ve learnt more about European countries and their cultures in two months of being here than in my entire life. Every time we have dinner or drinks with my friends we start asking questions like “oh, how do you say this in Polish?” or “is there something like that in Italy?”. Those kinds of interactions are so interesting for us, that I really wonder why so many people refrain themselves from having them.
When asked for reasons why exchange students don’t hang out with people from other countries, the two main answers are difficulty and fear. Difficulty and perceived lack of knowledge on how to interact with Finns also play a role in why exchange students don’t try to hang out with locals. A number of students even say that they’re not here to socialize but only to validate one criteria of their curriculum and get their diploma.
But still, it makes you wonder: is it that hard or frightening to walk up to someone you don’t know and say “Hi! How are you? I’m X and I’m from Y, what about you?” After all, getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things seems to be the whole point of any Erasmus experience.
Interacting with a fellow student that you know nothing about is the first step to create a sense of community among us.
Today, more than ever before, it is necessary to create stable and long-term cooperation between countries, in order to tackle problems like climate change, famine, poverty and wars. With the recent surge in the numbers of migrants coming to Europe, either for security or climate reasons, we have seen developed countries close their doors to people in need, and the rise of populism and far-right political parties.
Erasmus+ was established, according to the European Commission, as “an effective instrument to promote the inclusion of people with disadvantaged backgrounds, including newly arrived migrants”. It might seem a little far-fetched to you, but interacting with a fellow student that you know nothing about – especially if they’re from another part of the world – is the first step to create a sense of community among us, students from all over the world.
The writer is a French exchange student who loves travelling, cooking and writing.