Edinburgh disappeared beneath me, clouds filtered by, and the sky darkened into a beautiful orange sunset. I was heading to Bologna with seven other students, as well as Liam and Silja from the Strathclyde Students’ Union. We went there for the third iteration of the USSA’s Go Global initiative, where those from widening access backgrounds participate in a week’s educational and cultural immersion in a European city. Activities on the trip included visiting partner universities, meeting Erasmus representatives and talking to students who have undertaken international exchange opportunities.
Full of exhausted excitement, we touched down, unpacked and participated in a fun game of ‘Oh Dear, We Have Arrived at Midnight and Everyone is Very Hungry’. After stumbling upon a quaint little restaurant, I had my first pasta epiphany of the trip (mushroom tagliatelle, you really do something to me).
The next day, given my vague knowledge of Bologna, I was more than delighted to be able to explore – Italy is a country where the very ground you stand on has historical significance. I remarked to the group that one of the worries I would have while studying there would be not being able to differentiate between what I could and couldn’t sit on or touch, as I am someone who unintentionally operates a bit like a bull in a china shop.
We visited monuments and Basilicas and walked the cobbled pathways of the ancient town centre, where cafes line the streets and the locals seem to operate at a much more relaxed pace. Bologna is known for being very student-oriented; its university campus spans the entire city. As we passed students – some of them dressed up in hilarious costumes – partaking in traditional graduation activities with friends in the buzzing plazas, we began to get an understanding of what it would feel like to study in such a vibrant environment. Young people seem to be able to slow down there – whether socialising, reading or studying in the November sun; they looked relaxed and jovial. The day finished with a trepidatious ascent to the top of the Asinelli Tower, which gives a full 360-degree view of the entire city centre in all of its glory. Slightly nauseous and out of breath, I looked out, seeing in the absence of towering skyscrapers, bustling streets and lively, noisy rooftops. I felt wonderfully stuck in time.
Bologna University is the oldest in the Western world, its terracotta walls lined with incredible artwork and its ceilings decorated with age-old stories of discovery and exploration. In the morning, we sat through a valuable presentation from some of the exchange opportunity faculty who work as a first port-of-call for any students who are undertaking study in Bologna from abroad. They explained what international exchange entails, the administration required to facilitate it, the cost (of which there is entirely none for Erasmus students!) and aspects of student life and culture which come alongside living there. I realised that studying abroad had the potential to be more manageable, cost-effective and ultimately beneficial to my career aspirations than I ever could have thought. As a woman in STEM, I wondered if there would be opportunities for someone like me in an ancient city known for its grounding in humanities and cultural education; I was pleased to find out their science and technology qualifications are accredited to an internationally recognised standard.
Where living in Europe gets exciting is the possibility you have to visit any number of places in no time at all by hopping on high-speed trains – it’s not like Scotrail, folks! In Belgium, for example, you could venture in any direction for a couple of hours and find yourself in another country. To experience what this would be like as a student, on our last full day, we travelled to Florence. After visiting the university, we went on a tour with three Italians who were charming, if a little too easy-going (Scottish people become famished when made to walk anywhere, apparently). They pointed out that we should head up to Piazzale Michelangelo to take in the view. We spent around two hours watching day become dusk, the beautiful Cathedral of Saint Mary glowing in the distance. I felt utterly at peace.
With my feet planted firmly back on Scottish ground, I know my own perspective of foreign study has changed. To anyone who worries that taking up an experience like Erasmus would be arduous and unrewarding, I can reassure you that you have nothing to fear. The opportunities and experiences presented by doing foreign exchange are unparalleled, and you’ll have financial and social support from both the university and the network of other international students all the while. So, do it! Improve your language, make friends from all over the world, see mountains and castles, explore hidden streets and eat all the food. You won’t regret it.