Inbound students Study Abroad and Exchange at the University of Melbourne

Student Profiles

Maria Roitman

University of Granada, Spain

Exchange in Semester 1, 2015
Bachelor of Science (Neuroscience and Pharmacology) and Diploma of Languages (Spanish and Latin American Studies)

Perhaps I should begin with some context: my name is Maria, I am a BSc student, concurrently completing my Dip.Lang, and I did my exchange in the first semester of my third year, at the University of Granada (Spain) in 2015. Because the diploma generally extends the 3-year degree by some amount of time (in my case, six months), I didn’t have to worry about finding subject equivalents for my majors and could take enough subjects to finish off both my diploma and my science electives.

To be blatantly honest with every student who is considering studying overseas: arranging credit loading is difficult; the most difficult thing you will have to do before you go (and believe me, it will change when you get there, no matter how prepared you think you are). Arranging credit loading when studying (and receiving credit) for two degrees is very frustrating. Arranging credit for two degrees whilst overseas, with a ten hour time difference – now that, that is quite enough to drive anybody into a frenzy of (placidly put) temper-losing, hair-pulling and intrinsic cursing. To be blatantly honest: the exchange experience is worth every moment of difficulty in its preparation. It is worth it, a thousand times over. 

Financial assistance
For the positives of my pre-departure experience: despite the arrangement difficulties, I wanted to receive credit for both my degree and diploma meanwhile improving my language skills, and was determined to do that by studying in Spanish. This allowed me to broaden my eligibility for a number of potential scholarships. Some advice: start looking at the scholarship application dates a year in advance – many only have one round of applications a year.  I started my search about six months before departure and as a result only applied for one which was relevant to my situation.
The University of Melbourne is generous in its automatic consideration of scholarships, and I was very fortunate to receive financial assistance from both Melbourne Uni (Melbourne Global Languages Scholarship) and The Walter Mangold Trust Fund (a Study Abroad Scholarship Grant awarded on academic merit for students of Spanish, Japanese, Indonesian, Chinese (and Italian as of 2016)). I was very determined to finance the exchange experience without relying on parental help, and even though I had been working for several years, saving up, receiving the scholarships put me at total ease in regards to the (unknown) amount I would spend living overseas whilst studying and travelling.

Academic benefits of studying internationally
My subjects at the University of Granada were:

  • Psychopharmacology (fourth year subject)
  • Developmental Psychobiology (third year subject)
  • Hispano-American literature and other art forms: painting, music, film (third year subject)
  • History and Heritage of Spanish Music (second year subject)

My fifth subject was replaced with a number of extra-curricular activities (some academic, and some practical) organized through the University, which are described in the next section.

The biggest, and most obvious, benefit of studying in Granada was my marked language improvement. Studying in Spanish gave me no choice but to immerse myself in the language, enhancing my vocabulary to include the jargon of literature analyses, musicology, neuroscience and pharmacology (which one does not normally acquire in Spanish class). Combine this with the vocab of a housemate of mine who was doing a short(er) three month language course in Spain and we had the perfect vocabulary variety of an educationally well-rounded person: I supplied the nerdy science and analytical lingo, and he helped me out immensely with vegetable names (who knew there were so many different varieties of beans?) and generally those words relating to food, animals, everyday objects and culture – the useful stuff one usually needs in a social context.

The “culture” humanities subjects I took were very different to anything I had studied at Melbourne, but the science subjects were quite similar in curriculum to what I had already done, or was just about to do. The teaching in Spain goes at a much slower pace to that of Melbourne Uni, which was a definite help in battling with the foreign language (which did not go at a slower pace).

I learned a lot through the opportunity of studying overseas: if not about the policies enforced to protect the Al-andaluz influence and its heritage, or different examples of atypical schizophrenic drugs, then about the political use of visual poetry of Vicente Huidobro, and neuronal migration in early embryonic development. I learned that Spaniards (students and professors alike) prefer the use of Whatsapp to official university emails to spread around announcements; likewise, many things rely on word-of-mouth. I learned to type very quickly (I usually hand-write lecture notes in Melbourne), since Lecture Capture is not a luxury they have, and neither are power point summaries.
I also learned a lot about the Spaniards and their study habits (or lack thereof), and, most importantly, learnt that my life-options after finishing my degree are in no way restricted to staying in Melbourne to do a classic research pathway: an honours degree and then a PhD. One of the most valuable lessons I learned was that, having the privilege to be a student at Melbourne University opens so many doors into future possibilities – both nationally and internationally.

A life in Spain outside of study
Living in Spain was incredible, mostly characterised by all of the activities I did and the people I met. Through the University, I did a contemporary dance class, a “hiking-through-mountains-in-spring” course (yes that was its name), a diving intensive course (I received my PADI Open Water Diver accreditation) and a Primatology workshop! I do have to highlight the night life though: the Spaniards have a loco social schedule which took a while to adjust to. An average night out begins with dinner at 9-10pm. This usually goes to midnight, after which the kitchens close, so you move on from bar to bar, depending on who serves the best sangria. At about 1 or 2am you head to the Chupiteria – a bar which only sells shots (132 different varieties) for one euro each. After a few of those, you head to a club (they call them discos) which are mostly empty before 2-3am. There you are expected to dance to bachatas and reggetons until (at least) five in the morning (note that the clubs close at 8am). If you come home while it’s still dark, you’re not a real Spaniard. Then, sleep until 7pm, and repeat. (I was never able to hold out until 7am - my personal record was 5:30, but this is a true account of one of my Spanish housemates).

The most surprising and unusual things about my experience…
So far, I’ve tried to explain a very wide variety of things that could apply to many people wishing to study overseas (not just in Spain) but this one will probably be a not-so-common occurrence. I know I certainly did not expect it, and telling people about it sometimes makes them react in a “yeah, that’s an odd thing to do” kind of way. So, here it goes. The most unusual thing (but also one of the greatest things) that happened to me whilst on exchange was getting into a relationship with one of my housemates… who is German and (naturally) doesn’t live in Australia.
Now, I cannot promise that everyone will find themselves a loving German-, Spanish-, and English- speaking boyfriend from northern Germany in Granada! But, here are some more general unusual things about Spain (very, very usual to the Spaniards) which I can warn you about:

  • Dairy products are a struggle. Fresh milk doesn’t exist; “milk” is that long-life boxed stuff.
  • Did you want a skinny decaf late? Ha! “Café con (o sin) leche” is the only type of coffee there is (Note: the “leche” is as above).
  • 99% of public toilets (including those at the university) fulfilled only two or three out of the following four basic hygiene and privacy requirements we take for granted:
    1. Having a door that closes (bonus points if it has a lock!);
    2. Having a toilet seat for females to sit on;
    3. Being allowed to flush used toilet paper in the bowl (flushing toilet paper down the toilet contributes to clogging. DUH! Deposit in the nearby bin, thanks.); and
    4. Having access to aforementioned toilet paper.
  • Going out for tapas costs two euros (on average), which includes a drink (usually beer or tinto de verano (a red wine and lemonade drink)), food, and sometimes also sides. TWO EUROS!

Prior to commencing my study in February, I backpacked around Europe for two months. Starting out with a bag that weighed 11kg with the bare minimum of everything I needed for a European winter and the next seven and a half months, I began my adventure in the UK for Christmas, visiting a friend from London, then went to Germany (to visit my old friends and host family from an exchange I did during summer while I was still in high school), then to Belgium, the Netherlands, back through Germany to the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary, after which I finally arrived in Spain (Barcelona) and eventually Granada. From then (quickly before semester) I went to France. During my semester, I travelled extensively through Spain and Portugal and also visited Gibraltar. During the exam period (yes I was a little bit naughty), I went to Morocco, coming back the night before my last exam, and afterwards travelled to Switzerland, Turkey and Malaysia.

Travelling was undeniably the right thing to do for me, and travelling alone gives you this truly liberating sense of freedom and independence. I met a myriad of people from all different places and backgrounds along the way, which for me is one of the most exciting things about travel.  I didn’t travel in luxury – I stayed in hostels or couch-surfed, taking the train with a railpass – but I had the best time. Travelling before (although running the risk of low finances, but easily avoided with good planning for cheap travel) meant I could travel lightly. Travelling back was a logistical nightmare with sorting all of the physical luggage I had acquired, but I was sure of how much money I had left to spend. From the places I had never been to before, my personal favourites were the Netherlands, Prague, Budapest and Turkey – I will definitely need to visit those places again!

Advice to the pre-exchange folk
Do your preparation, get everything done as early as possible, but don’t get upset or freak out when you meet an obstacle: you’ll get really good at overcoming them, all it takes is a deep breath and a second (or twenty-second) attempt. You’ll get there.

Enjoy every moment of your exchange. Sure, there may be days you miss home and you want to call your mum, or your dog or even your special someone. Don’t let that consume you. You’ll be home sooner than you know, so get off that couch, go outside and talk to a random person on the street. They might just end up being your best friend in a foreign place.

If you’re going overseas to study a language (and this is a tough one for some people) – try not to speak English with anyone there (even though it is SO easy and tempting to slip back into it, especially if you had a tough day). I may have taken this a bit too literally, to the point where I wouldn’t want to be friends with anybody from an English-speaking place. I’m not saying that’s a good thing to do, but maybe try and limit your English use to the people from home, and you’ll notice your language skills soar!

Upon returning home, be prepared for coming back to Melbourne in all its ups and downs: of course you get those mouth-wateringly delicious soy flat whites, but also the ridiculously priced meals and accommodation. Be active in maintaining that contact with the people you met overseas – they’re special in a way that the people here can never be: they were there to share your international experience and make it unique.

And just a note: your experience is as much as you make out of it! Mine was incredible due to constantly being on the move, exploring bizarre situations I never had the chance to explore previously – these include my first bungee-jumping experience and working as a cabaret entertainer at a jazz bar/cafe that was open from 3pm-3am, where they paid me in ice-cream sundaes. Make the absolute most of the time you have!

Lastly, have a blast!