Celebrating Cultures, Promoting Integration
International university experience in Ireland or in any other country is generally a positive experience for a student. Here, five French people describe the impact this adventure has had on their lives.
Since Brexit, Ireland and Malta are the only English-speaking countries in the European Union and in the Erasmus program. “International placements in the United Kingdom stop after September 2021 and applications for English-speaking countries in the EU are transferred to [these two countries],” confirms Sylvia Novel, head of the international relations service department at the University of Toulon, France.
For this university in the south of France, Erasmus partnerships with Ireland represent 5% of the whole, with 25 places per year and already 120 students who have benefited from them. “Ireland interests our students,” comments Aimeline Alet, from the same department.
Stats from Toute l’Europe show that students from various European countries are very interested in studying in Ireland: 8,181 of them went to Irish universities in 2017-2018 thanks to the Erasmus program. But French people seem to be particularly attracted to the Emerald Island. Indeed, according to Business Insider, Ireland was the 5th most popular destination for French students, with 12.417 of them going to Irish universities in 2018 alone (many of them with Erasmus).
Why do French students choose Ireland? Asking her students this question, Aimeline Alet received three main answers. First, for students who have already been to England, Ireland is a new place to discover. Second, since Ireland is one of the less studied countries of the English-speaking world, French students are naturally curious. And third, because Irish people have a reputation for being nice and warm, why not dive into this inviting Irish atmosphere?
The choice of Ireland for an international university experience
Five French people were interviewed for this article, and tell their own stories of university life in Ireland. Estelle from Aix-Marseille University and Laura from the University Toulouse II Jean Jaurès were studying Applied Foreign Languages in France and followed similar classes in Ireland, both of them at Dublin City University (DCU). Elia went to NUI Galway (NUIG), where she was doing Social and Political Studies, complementing her study of International Politics at the University of Toulon in France. All three studied in Ireland during the Covid pandemic. Abigail, my fourth interviewee, went to Maynooth University from Aix-Marseille University, studying English language, literature and civilisation at both universities.
The last person interviewed was Prof. Frédéric Armao. Today, he’s an Associate Professor at the University of Toulon, but at the time of his one-year-long visit to Dublin, he was writing his thesis on Irish civilisation, and visited the libraries of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and University College Dublin (UCD).
The question stands: why did they want to go to Ireland? “I wanted to go back to live in the country,” answered Estelle, who had already lived there as an au pair in 2017. “I wanted to discover more places, also improve my English and see my former host family.” Language learning is, of course, very important and Elia wanted to live in an English-speaking country: “It was important for me to gain this experience and Irish universities are very reputable.”
But the country itself is also attractive, Elia knew that she wanted to visit it. Laura thought that Dublin “seemed to be a pretty nice city”, since a friend of hers already went there and told her good things about the place.
However, more practical reasons are also important in students’ choices. Abigail wanted to go to an English-speaking country to clarify her career options (to work as an English teacher in France or a French teacher abroad), but the money question helped her make her decision. “I chose Ireland first for financial reasons,” she explained. “They use the same currency as France and as a student, you think about how to spend each euro you have”.
As a young researcher, Prof Armao just had to go: “After several months of research, I realised that I couldn’t really finish my work without having access to the resources available in Ireland.” So he just went. Very interested in the Celtic and Gaelic worlds, he focused his studies on these topics and quickly discovered the potential of this fascinating field.
A special experience, in all the senses of the term
The pandemic changed everything for students, and even if it didn’t stop them from going to a foreign country, it just wasn’t the same. “In all honesty, I was expecting more from this exchange program,” said Estelle, who was sorry about the restricted situation. Elia also found it difficult, especially with online classes, which limited the interaction between students and lecturers.
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Beside all the troubles, Laura had “a great time”: “my courses were interesting, my teachers and my landlord were really kind and thoughtful”. Abigail particularly noticed the difference between French and Irish teachers, who she found less strict. “I was also proud of myself as the only foreigner in two of my classes,” she added.
Prof Armao had a different experience and appreciated the small size of the island, which allowed him to visit everywhere. “I spent three months going around the country to visit traditional sites, and it was maybe the most fascinating three months of my existence”. However, one thing was still very difficult for him: the weather. “It was hard to bear in the long term,” he answered truthfully. “I was born, and I grew up in the south of France. The difference was probably too much and I never got used to the Irish climate.” It doesn’t stop him from loving the country, though.
The four students noted the nice people, the value of the experience, and the opportunity to discover another side of the country wherever they stayed. However, they experienced homesickness too and the lockdown prevented them from fully enjoying student life. The high cost of living in Ireland is another negative aspect.
Living in a country can be a good way to destroy some stereotypes but also to confirm others. “I knew that Irish people love music, play it in the pubs and in the streets, but I would not imagine that every Irish person I met would play an instrument,” Elia commented. Another preconceived idea concerns food. “It isn’t as bad as I’ve heard before discovering it,” Estelle laughed. “Fishing is a common activity, harvesting potatoes too!” That’s maybe a little cliché, but everybody knows it’s true!
For Abigail, it was more about the simple things of life that French people aren’t used to, like the switch on a power socket: “It happened that I wondered why the water in my saucepan was not boiling after ten minutes!” For Prof Armao, “Ireland lived up to its reputation”. He remembered not being so surprised with the country since he had already studied it. “Except maybe discovering palm trees on the west coast!”
A way to reflect on a lot of things
“It deeply changed the vision I had of my own country and people,” Prof Armao said when he was asked to summarize his experience. “I understood what was ‘good’ or what I found good in France and what bothered me.” As a professor, and for a human experience, he recommends living in a foreign country and thinks it is a “radical remedy for ignorance and stupidity”.
Globally, the various accents in the country are often noticed by foreign students. “There are some students I have never understood with their strong Irish accent,” Abigail remembered, proud that they all understood her when she spoke English. Even Prof Armao didn’t think he would hear accents so difficult to understand. It’s something always surprising in another country, but one tends to forget that their own country also has various difficult accents.
Even in this difficult period, Estelle, Elia and Laura qualified this experience in various positive terms. “A semester abroad is always life-changing,” Elia summarized. “It makes us learn a lot about people and ourselves and mature as we would not back at home.” For Estelle, “it is purely enriching”. “When you’re an expat, you discover things all the time,” Abigail added.
The four students all recommended this experience for every student who gets the chance. But Elia reminded us that it’s not for everyone: “There are people, whom I’ve met, who are reluctant to step out of their comfort zone or to make any concessions, who are not very sociable or not open-minded enough. These people tend to be unhappy and regret doing their semester abroad, so to save time, money, and regrets, one should think over such a decision carefully.”
Studying abroad is always something special, but everyone has their own way to live it: the experience is unique. Even if you know people who already did it, you can never know what you will find out about a country or about yourself beforehand. What do you think about the French university experience in Ireland? Tell us your own story in the comment section!