Erasmus on two wheels

One of my friends, Péter Farkas decided to take part in the Erasmus scholarship programme during the last semester. He is studying environmental engineering at the University of Pannonia. At the same time, he is a real sportsman, whenever he has the chance he participates in off-road bike challenges all over Hungary.
I had an interesting discussion with him about why he eventually chose a foreign university with an area also suitable for cycling. We also touched upon such issues as learning and professional aspects of his decision. He had a lot of positive and also negative experiences. The biggest negative one resulted in returning home without his professional mountain bike. Let’s get the story started.

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Why did you decide to spend a semester abroad with the Erasmus programme?

I failed one subject in my first semester at the university. At first, it didn’t seem to be a big problem, but as a result of it, I had to stay at the university for a 4th year. I wanted to gain some new experience, so I started to search for companies that provide internship positions for students. My research failed, so I changed my plans, and I continued with my course.  Meanwhile, I kept looking for new challenges and this is how I decided to learn abroad.

How did you choose the country and the university? Where did you look exactly?

I had lot of illusion, and it took quite a while to realise them. For instance, I really wanted to live and spend time in one of the neighbouring countries of Hungary. Plus, I really like the outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking…etc.. Basically, I had two opportunities: I could go either to Austria, or Romania. I speak English and German well. I have been learning German for more than 14 years. In fact, the possibility of studying in German language seemed to be the quite a big challenge so that is why I chose Austria. My university had only one contact in Styria, the Montanuniversitaet Leoben. Germany could have been an alternative, but the geography of Austria appealed to me more.

Where were you staying during the scholarship period?

I arranged for accommodation in a brand new international dormitory. I wrote a few letters to the dormitories of the university, but I got only one offer. Austria has an interesting accommodation system. Before you get in the apartment, you have to pay a deposit.. After you leave the place, you can get your money back. This deposit is worth of 2-3 months of accommodation fee (around 700-1000 €). After the transfer of this money, I had to choose a room otherwise I would have lost the deposit. It was a really good motivation to stay with my original plans.

I think that the dormitory is the best living place for an exchange student. You are able to meet other foreign students, you can practice your English, mainly the unofficial language spoken by everyday people. Organising parties is also easy; one can get in touch with others directly and personally.

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Have you experienced any difference in comparing the Austrian and the Hungarian higher education system or living in a dormitory, including the way of teaching?

Absolutely! In fact, in both aspects. I had lived in a Hungarian dormitory for 3 years. The resident halls were really different in Austria. They were more open-minded, more direct and more friendly. Most of the students have never learned German, and English was their second language. If they wanted to speak to someone or do things together, they would use English. I did not know exactly why, but the people acted more kindly. Maybe the language difficulties or other everyday problems of life (far from the hometown) brought people together. The second thing I observed was the different personalities of the exchange students. For example, all of the students liked to travel. To be honest, most of them were lazy, like the Hungarian ones, but some from our team were able to arrange for hiking tours or trips together.

The atmosphere of the university was interesting. First of all, the courses were quite difficult. The average number of semesters to spend at the university for students are somewhere between 13-14. Theoretically, one could obtain a BSc degree in 7 semesters. The university had a big learning hall for students, which was always full. I have never wished to be a regular student in Leoben. I spent 4 hours on average at the university every day. We had an intensive course in English language before the beginning of the semester. I did not really have too much free time during those two weeks of February. However, I got to know a really good English teacher from the USA. The university offered a wide range of foreign languages; they also offered basic Russian. The teachers treated me as if I were a normal Austrian student.

I had only 2 or 3 exams at the end of the semester. I must admit that it took more time to prepare for an exam written in a foreign language. At the University of Pannonia I am studying environmental engineering, I chose similar subjects in Leoben as well. The professors were well prepared for the classes, and luckily they did not have any incomprehensible regional accent. However, some of the students had pretty strong accents and listening to them was pretty funny.

Another interesting aspect was that during the classes students were divided into groups. I could see one team of boys, and the other one of girls. It is understandable why women are searching friends among women and men among men; however it was really eye-catching for me. That gave me the impression that Austrian people are truly conservative.

I’ve heard that you used to compete with your mountain bike. Have you got any possibilities to discover new landscapes and to train yourself in Austria?

Yes, I started racing with mountain bike in 2011. This is a really dangerous sport but it is my biggest passion. I had the chance to explore the best routes around Leoben. After a few months, I could not even get lost in the forests. Most of my rides included 1.5 hour climbing and 30 minutes downhill. High level bike handling and good brakes were absolutely necessary. Every ride was a big adventure.

Have you encountered any problem during the Erasmus trip?

Unfortunately yes, I have. The Erasmus scholarship did not provide me with many opportunities to discover Austria. However, I consider my biggest loss my bike, it got stolen from the bicycle storage of the dormitory. After that I needed a new bike which took all of my saved money. Furthermore, I had mood swings but they were not related to the trip.

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How could you cope with these difficulties? Did you get any help from anyone ?

Luckily, I got a small scholarship from a company.  Without the help of my family I could not afford the trip and the losses. Otherwise, I did not get too much help from other sources. I see that self-reliance is crucial for everyone in situations I mentioned before.

Have you managed to have accepted/transferred any course you took in Austria during your Erasmus semester to your studies in Veszprém?

It is still in progress. I really hope I will have some accepted as I need a 16-ECTS-recognition. I was not able to have them recognised during the autumn semester.

How did the last semester contribute to your professional development?

I practically studied the same subjects I would have had in Hungary, but of course in a foreign language and I wrote a small essay titled “Canalisation of Leoben”. I gained a lot of experience in my major.

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At last but not least, what is your opinion and experience on the Erasmus programme?

I can answer this with a quotation of Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Let me ask you another last question. Would you like to go abroad again?

Definitely! In two years’ time I would like to apply for an internship in Germany.

Photos: Péter Farkas