On studying abroad and what it really means to ‘find your balance’

I haven’t updated my blog in weeks, a month to be precise, and half of the semester is already over – as impossible as both of these facts seem to me, they are unfortunately true. The concept of time, it appears, is something that works differently here compared to home. There never seems to be enough of it – be it to catch up with university work, to go out and explore the city (never mind the country) or to meet up with friends whom I’ll have to say goodbye to in less than two months. For many students, Erasmus is the getaway car from adult life where university obligations are thrown into the trunk with duct-tape wrapped over their mouths. And since the blind awe of the first weeks has surely but slowly started to fade and my eyes have grown used to the shine, I decided to take a minute and reflect on this last month, on what it’s really like to study at the University of Edinburgh.

Even though I haven’t written a blog post in a while, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the best metaphor would be to describe my daily life to friends and family at home. Many weeks went by until I finally found a way to put my feelings into words because it took me just as long to settle into something vaguely similar to a routine, a kind of stability I’m still struggling to maintain. And the reason for that, my clumsy metaphor, is that studying here feels like running a marathon at double speed – you’ve practiced for years, you know your limits, but only after a few minutes in, you realise that this is not the kind of run you’ve been training for. Instead of starting slowly and gearing up towards the end, you have to give it your all from the first minute onwards and you don’t know if your strength will be enough. Alright, you must think now, tone it down a notch because this isn’t ‘Chariots of Fire’, and you’d be absolutely right. I’d never go for a run, never mind on a beach in shorts in the Scottish autumn.

Of course, I knew what I was getting myself into. Before I applied for my Erasmus semester, I channelled my inner Sherlock Holmes to find out everything I could about my first choice of university, and I knew that Edinburgh would be by far the most demanding. It is, after all, quite rightfully one of the top 20 universities in the world.

WHAT DOES A WEEKLY SCHEDULE LOOK LIKE?

As an Erasmus student, I’m required to select three classes (min. 30 credits in total) according to my study programme and personal interests. Since I’m studying English Literature & Culture with focus on Scotland, I decided to take Conceptualising Scotland (Scottish Studies), Introduction to Gaelic Language and Culture (Celtic Studies), and Creative Writing: Prose (English Literature & Culture). Since the first two courses are first- and second-year classes, they are structured differently from Creative Writing, a third-year honours class. Conceptualising Scotland consists of three lectures a week à 50 minutes (much shorter than the weekly 90 minutes lectures at my home institution) and a tutorial session which takes place every second week. Gaelic, on the other hand, is split into a language workshop which I attend on three days a week, a lecture on the cultural and literary background taking place once a week, and a tutorial which, just like Conceptualising Scotland, alternates every second week. For first- and second-year classes, this concept of lectures and accompanying tutorials remains almost always the same. When it comes to third-year courses, e.g. Creative Writing, students are required to work more independently and much of the workload shifts from in-class practices to one’s spare time. Additionally to the 2-hours class every week, I was sorted into an Autonomous Learning Group (ALG) consisting of three to four students with whom I’m required to meet up at least once a week out of class to go over special tasks assigned in class, e.g. writing prompts, questions accompanying the reading material for the course, etc.

ESSAYS, EXAMS, AND THE IMPOSSIBLE 100%

“When you hand in your essays, I expect the majority of you to score around 60 to 70%. That’s good, that’s above average. Maybe one or two of you will reach 80%. But in my whole academic career, the best grade I ever awarded on an essay was 86% – and that one made my knees jitter.“

These weren’t exactly the words I expected or wanted to hear from a professor in the very first lecture of the semester, but in retrospect, they were the biggest motivation I could have received. Because nothing motivates more than someone telling you that your aim is impossible to reach. It doesn’t matter if you achieve it, but you push yourself to new limits, you set even higher standards for yourself and that, in turn, leads to personal and academic growth.

Leonie 1

Grading at the University of Edinburgh works in a (not so) simple way:

100-90% – A1 (excellent, unheard of – at least in Arts & Humanities)

89-80% – A2 (excellent)

79-70% – A3 (excellent)

69-60% – B (very good)

59-50% – C (satisfactory)

59-40% – D (pass)

<40% – fail

Over the course of the semester, students need to hand in different assignments according to the classes they’ve chosen. Depending on the course structure, they must hand in an essay (2,000- 2,500 words) on a topic or research question given by their lecturer and a final exam (approx. 2 hours) at the end of the semester. And even though I knew this beforehand, I wasn’t prepared for handling that much workload at once.

FIND YOUR BALANCE

With all of the deadlines approaching quickly and the weekly, sometimes even daily workload of vocabularies, grammar, and reading materials, it is difficult to find a balance – depending on the classes, more so for some than for others. At my home institution, we write our essays during semester breaks, so I’m used to being able to fully concentrate on essay writing alone. I’ve never done that while attending classes, while having to study to keep up in Gaelic, while being in a different country I want to explore on the weekends, and while knowing that I’ll soon have to say goodbye to the majority of my friends. And I’m not ashamed to admit that none of my strategies seemed to work – for the first time in my life, I handed in an assignment one minute before it was supposed to be due because I’d been working on it to the very last second after arriving back home from my last class. I’m not one for partying and I know when to cut back, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and while it’s important to me to leave this university with grades I’m satisfied with, I quickly realised that I might have to compromise on something.

It was then that I realised that if I want to do well in my classes, I won’t be able to make the most of my long-awaited semester abroad because even if you’re not working on an assignment, the clock keeps ticking and constantly reminds you that your time here is limited. And while the view of Arthur’s Seat is quite spectacular from the big windows of the library, it does not replace the experience of climbing up there with your newly made friends and experience it for yourself.

All the way back in September, I thought that the phrase directed at us during the welcome ceremony was for freshers or students in their first years who needed to learn that studying doesn’t only consist of studying the local nightclubs and pubs: “Find your balance.“  I kept thinking of it almost every day for weeks, scolding myself for not having taken it seriously then. I wouldn’t say that I’ve lost my stand, not yet at least, but I’m still trying to keep that balance, to say ‘yes’ to a book shopping tour or a walk through the city every now and then even though the mountain of work piling up on my desk at home keeps growing and growing. Unfortunately, there is no ultimate solution, no secret recipe on how to make the most of your stay and your studies at the same time because everyone needs to find their own balance for everyone arrives here with different ambitions, different aims, and different expectations.

By now, I’ve found mine and I finally get to enjoy the whole view, the incredible panorama that this experience offers me, so much so that I’ve extended my stay for another semester.

By Leonie.