Exchange students: feeling good and enjoying Latvia

  • 2011-10-20
  • By Emi Pastor

PARTY TIME: Erasmus parties are famous around the world, but, from time to time, they feel it is a good idea to organize an international afternoon of sport with people of different ages and nationalities.

RIGA - The University of Latvia (UL) has opened its doors to the new school year, receiving almost 18,000 college students for another year of hitting the books. They want to improve their skills, learn something with their studies, and will work to finish their higher education, with some studying for their masters degree of specialization. Some of them - 160 students in total - are foreigners who will stay in Latvia during the autumn semester enjoying an Erasmus scholarship, or other student exchange program with similar characteristics. They, known as Erasmus students, are young, attend college, and their homes may be far away from Latvia. So, the question for this group is: why do they come here?

According to the University of Latvia, this educational institution hosts around 160 exchange students who have come to Latvia during the first semester of the year for enjoying an international experience. The International Relations Department said to The Baltic Times that this number will increase, with more students in the spring semester. At the moment, though, “It is hard to predict the number of students in the next period,” said coordinator Beate Ramina. However, it is likely that the numbers won’t be far from the results of last year. During the 2010/2011 year, UL welcomed 237 exchange students for the entire academic year: “125 exchange students in the autumn semester and 112 exchange students in the spring semester,” added Ramina. The majority of students who arrive in Riga come from Germany, Spain, Poland, France, Italy and Turkey, according to university estimates.

While for Latvian students it may seem repetitive going to class every day, for exchange students everything is new here, a little bit strange and, from time to time, confusing. Going to the supermarket, taking notes from your professor or making yourself understood in public is not too easy when you are a foreigner.

Regardless of one’s country of origin, what is the main reason for coming to Riga? One could cite the curiosity, the parties, making new friends, improving on a language like English, the places that students can visit, or the different ways of life experienced, for example. Logically, there is a common answer: Enjoying the most in this international experience.
“I choose coming here because I did not know anything about this country. In the other places where I have been, I don’t want to have my Erasmus experience as I already have expectations,” said Edwina, a young German economics student. Damiano, a 20-year-old from Italy, believes that “an Erasmus [semester] is just an experience, and it doesn’t matter how far from home you are. For me, there’s no difference, because the distance isn’t so much, thanks to social networks.”

Sometimes, the reason is that young people need to expand their world: “I decided to come here because there are not any Thai people in Latvia, and I wanted to improve myself. When I arrived, I felt that I would get some more experiences and more adventures, and Thailand is not so far [away],” explains 27-year-old Tanagorn, from the Asian continent, who is here studying for a Masters in European Studies.

For Danna, however, who arrived in Latvia from Kazakhstan for a three month stay, the Baltic country was just one more option: “My university didn’t have a lot of options. So I chose Spain first, Germany second and Latvia third. Therefore, I like to say that I did not pick Latvia, but Latvia chose me,” she jokes.

When an Erasmus student arrives at their destination, everything looks like a complete disaster: the city is unknown and culture shock appears. The adventure begins and any help is welcome. In this case, the first reference for him or her is the national organization of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN).
For Latvia, the organization ESN Riga works with the students and schools. As in every other country it works in, the group assists students during their first weeks and encourages integration between them and the local people and culture. The secret is that “students are helping students.”

The national representative of Latvia in ESN, Madara Apsalone, explained to The Baltic Times that “most of the students are not very familiar with Latvia when they arrive for their exchange.” Obviously, that causes, certainly, several needs and anxieties: “They need to deal with settling down, often finding an apartment, getting used to life in the city of their exchange. They also need to get used to studies in our education system and our universities, and, of course, the need to make friends with other Erasmus and Latvian students,” she said.

According to ESN Riga, there are about 400 students each year coming to Latvia, mainly to the UL, but also to other higher education institutions, like Riga Technical University, Riga Stradins University and the Stockholm School of Economics.
The number of exchange students in Latvia is considerably lower than in other European countries where, for example, the students hosted are counted in the thousands. Latvia, though, is a small country.

In relation to the official statistics about students, Erasmus mobility, published by the European Commission for the year 2009/2010, destinations such as Spain welcomed 29,326 students; France 22,022 and Germany about 17,900 students. Otherwise, in the same period, only 418 people arrived in Latvia; 658 in Estonia and 1,193 chose Lithuania. 
“It is important to provide very organized information about study opportunities in Latvia for international students, and to increase the number of courses offered in English,” insisted Apsalone. Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest weaknesses in the Latvian system, where the English language coexists with the Russian and Latvian languages, such that foreigners can get overwhelmed. “Few study fields and few universities have quite a good number of courses in English, while for many students the choice is still very limited,” she recognized.

Similar to this inconvenience, good integration between people of different nationalities is another point needing to be improved: “We also would like to see all Erasmus students taking courses together with Latvian students, not having a special course in English designed only for Erasmus, as this has not enabled much cultural integration,” Apsalone said.
ESN is, nonetheless, especially useful and well known, in any country where students go on exchange, for the events and activities that it organizes. In the case of Latvia, the website offers updated information about different trips and parties on offer, like the next trip to Vilnius, to the Sea Battle or the Halloween Party planned at the end of October. There are these sorts of things that allow the students to “start to travel around Latvia and learn more about our culture,” the ESN Riga representative noted.

To start to feel comfortable after arrival, the key for new and bewildered students is the buddy system. One’s buddy is a Latvian student, boy or girl, who welcomes and is assigned to the foreign student, and takes care of them during the first days and weeks.

“We help students through our buddy system - giving them a Latvian friend who can make the integration easier, and we organize a lot of orientation and integration activities. We often can help with various practicalities,” ESN Riga highlights. This network is coordinated and well-developed by ESN and the University of Latvia jointly, manned by a group of local students who, having returned from their own exchanges in other countries, can offer to share their experiences and help to others.

Latvia student Agnese Jansone knows very well the role of being a buddy. She is studying at the University of Latvia to become a teacher of English in the future, and has described to The Baltic Times her adventure as an Erasmus student in Vienna, and as a buddy in Riga after returning to Latvia. “I was on Erasmus in Vienna [Austria] for 1 academic year [2 semesters] and I found this experience amazingly important,” concluding, because it can change your life quite a lot. “It just develops you as a person; you learn so many things, languages, meet new people from so many different cultures and realize that life is actually very colorful and can be so enjoyable,” she explained.

However, everything is not always perfect. Jansone regretted not having received more support, when in Vienna, by her own buddy: “I was supposed to have one in Vienna, but I never met her [her Austrian friend], because she was too busy with her life,” and said that “in this case people should not apply to become buddies. Being a buddy, I would call a mission.”
The buddy system is a way of helping. This sort of thing, as in volunteering, benefits the sender and the receiver. “You meet so many new people; they do not necessarily become your best friends, but if you manage to help them feel at home here then you become friends, and sometimes more. And I enjoy being in contact with exchange students; they keep on reminding me of how wonderful life is,” explained Jansone.

“First I contact them before their arrival in Riga. I introduce myself and ask them details about their arrival, pick them up at the airport and show them the city and how to ‘survive’ here,” the buddy said.

The principle has always been difficult, for the “most important time I would say is the first week, when they are the most confused about all the new things going on in their lives,” she adds. After the first contacts with the new home, “we keep in touch, go on excursions and cultural events,” but students are more independent.
Buddies don’t earn any money for their efforts: “We don’t get any money for being a buddy, but I would say the feeling that I have when I can help someone to feel at home in my country is the greatest, so that I know ‘Hey, he or she is OK on his/her own in this city/country,’” says a pleased Jansone.

How to encourage the new students towards integration with others? She believes that ‘by inviting them to be with me when I do all the best things” is a start. For instance, she remembered that “last year I, with my exchange students, did Bungee jumping, and that was the experience of their year. You can go through all the feelings and emotions together because things are done together and emotions connect people.”

At the end of this experience people remember the best things, and they are able to consolidate a friendship, although the great distance is unavoidable. Jansone admits that in her case, “There are millions of good things to remember. And they are worth being a buddy for.” For example, she went to visit her last year’s exchange students, or “her children,” as she tends to say jokingly. After all, it is no so far off reality. “When they are here, you are, for them, like a mum all the time, worried if everything is OK, if they have eaten and if they have clothes warm enough to wear on a very cold December morning,” she concludes.

In any event, an Erasmus experience can be a very enriching one, after which students must go back to their old lives. Unfortunately, there are some details that hinder free mobility of the European and other students around the world. The basic needs, such as the signing of agreements between universities or recognition of the studies in the countries of origin and destination, are priorities that need attention to enlarge the Erasmus Universe. Only in this way will it be possible to build up a true map of universities, opportunities and students from all disciplines in the context of a globalized, education-enriching world.