Sunday, February 12, 2012

Canterbury tales (sort of)

When I heard last year that I would be going to the University of Kent as an exchange student, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I was going to live in England, and more precisely in Canterbury – at only 40 miles from London. Phew! Unbelievable. A dream come true. Studying English in England’s garden was the opportunity of a lifetime.

University of Kent is situated on a hill at two miles from Canterbury’s city centre. From the campus grounds, there is a wonderful view of Canterbury Cathedral. The campus is surrounded by open green spaces, fields and woods. It is self-contained which means that on campus you can find just about everything you need such as a theatre, cinema, library, bookshop, sports centre, laundrettes, an off-license, cashpoints, two nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and co-operative shops. In the first few weeks, this seems wonderful but after a while you feel cut off from the rest of the world. You get fed up with eating the same food from the same shop and the same dishes from the same menu whatever the restaurant. You feel like a fish in a bucket. But luckily, the city of Canterbury is nearby like a breath of fresh air.

The University of Kent is organised to perfection. As an exchange student, you can count on finding accommodation on campus which isn’t that simple as campus accommodation is reserved for freshers and off-campus housing is difficult to find. First, the university invites you to an induction week. On the very day you arrive, you may register and get your keys in a matter of minutes. Students wait for you so as to show you where you can find your room on this huge campus. In your room, a notice already awaits, explaining how to connect to the internet and providing other useful information. In the same week, you get a library tour which should later turn out to be very useful. The European office invites you to an international students’ dinner and organises a trip to Leeds Castle. So when the term eventually starts a week later, you can find your way around and everything seems to be already familiar to you. Everything just seems to go on smoothly. I admire the way everything is organised.

However, everything wasn’t as wonderful as it might have looked; for instance, the choice of the courses. Before registering, I had a look at the online catalogue. 41 literature courses were offered for stage 2 and 3 students. But after having excluded the courses not organised on that year and those only available at the spring term or assessed by means of an exam, only nine courses could be attended. Why did I eliminate courses assessed through an exam? Well, simply because as a one-term exchange student, you are allowed to keep your accommodation until December 30. The exams are organised in January which implies that you‘ll need to come back for them. With a Eurostar ticket at around 150 euros – that is, if you make an early reservation – and on top of that a bed and breakfast to rent, this exam session would turn out to be very expensive.

Most modules at University of Kent are worth 15 ECTS, which implies that with one linguistic course and one literature course you are already above the 22 credits required by the FUNDP. But of course, you think that this is a one in a lifetime opportunity to study English with the English in England, so you go ahead. A module usually comprises one hour of lecture and two hours of seminar. And multiplied by two, that makes six hours a week of lectures and seminars. Wow! Only six hours. Blimey, this is going to be a holiday, isn’t it? With plenty of time to socialise, visit London, and meander through the UK. Well, don’t even dream about it. They keep you busy with a massive amount of reading. So, instead of having a drink in the pub and trying to connect with the locals, you find yourself in your tiny room calculating how many pages you have to read per hour in order to finish your weekly novel in four days. You’re doing ‘time management’ because you also have to find three other days to read the articles for the linguistic course. And you want to stay ahead because you know that the deadline for the essays is fast approaching and that they will require a lot of your time, too. Of course, university is not play school. We can all agree on that one. So, let’s just say that it has been a ‘challenging and arduous’ process.

It was a bit disappointing to have so few opportunities to meet a representative of the local population. The English are friendly and polite but reserved (or maybe they just don’t dare to go out because of their safety phobia; never in my life have I seen so many warnings related to safety). However, despite not being able to socialise much with the locals, I really was lucky. I got to know two American mature students whom I met once or twice a week. Thanks to them, I had ample opportunities to speak English, which were essential for improving my conversational skills. Moreover, I shared a house with four Canadians and a British student. I was also able to go to London a few times, see the Grayson Perry Exhibition, admire the Rosetta stone and attend an unconventional performance of Romeo and Juliet on campus.

All things considered, this Erasmus exchange remains a wonderful opportunity. It allowed me to get acquainted with another academic system, culture and way of life, not forgetting that this experience will only improve my CV. Most importantly, it helped boost my level of English. I had first thought that I haven’t yet made enough progress in English until one day I burst out laughing while watching a TV programme. There were some funny puns and all of a sudden it dawned on me that I was able to understand every word. I no longer needed the subtitles! Of course, there is still a long long way to go and perhaps I may never be able to master the English language as well as I’d like to. Nevertheless, I think that this experience has given me confidence about my English language skills as well as the conviction that I’ll be a better teacher for it.

Safety phobia

Belgo American society (3 members only)

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