I went into my second year at Warwick with no intention of having an Erasmus year – it had literally not crossed my mind. I signed up to take German at the language centre based only on my interest in the language itself. I had always enjoyed German at school but had never felt I was any good at it; I gave it up after GCSE and carried on with my science subjects.
I was sitting in a Maths lecture and in walks the head of the Erasmus society and begins telling us about his year in Grenoble where he’d spent the year skiing, snowboarding, learning French (and seemingly occasionally going to university). In the space of his 5 minute talk I had made up my mind to take an Erasmus year.
Taking an Erasmus year from within the Maths department couldn’t have been easier. I was given a choice from six or seven universities from all over Germany and could also decide whether my year abroad would count as the third year of my MMath or would be a year out of my BSc; I chose the latter. Unlike other departments, particularly those which are language based, there was very little competition for places. I could choose Berlin and be almost certain that that was where I would be going. After having applied there was actually very little to organise; I waited until my exchange university contacted me and filled out the (small amount of) paperwork they sent me. I finished second year knowing that in September I would be heading to Berlin.
I arrived in Berlin at the beginning of September having arranged no permanent accommodation for myself. I would not recommend this to anyone as even after a couple of days you feel like you’re never going to find anywhere to live. I stayed in a hostel for the first week (which may have been the most stressful of my life!) until I found a flat in the Neu Koeln area of Berlin. Once I had sorted my accommodation and had been to the induction day at the Technische Ueniversitaet Berlin I felt far more at home and could begin exploring the city with the new friends I’d made. Berlin I’m sure needs no introduction, it’s one of the world’s great cities and is teeming with history from as far back as the 17th century till as recently as 1990s. This was the incredible situation I’d found myself in; able to enjoy the incredible depth of culture whilst continuing with my uni education. One of my favourite things about Berlin was the very clear liberal feel that the city has. It is very safe and nearly everybody is friendly and engaging (if a little too keen to speak English). It’s also an incredibly cheap city, particularly compared to London and Paris, I paid a third of the rent I would have paid if staying in London and the general cost of living was also much cheaper. The nightlife in Berlin was amazing, if a little tough to get used to! Nights don’t generally start till 1am and can regularly go on 6-7am. A lot of the Europeans found this quite normal but coming from the UK it was a bit of a culture shock.
I didn’t know what to expect from the German university system. I had heard something about them having fewer holidays over there but that was about the limit of my knowledge. Upon first arriving I was really pleased with the help I received from the international office at the TU Berlin. They gave me a lot of info to help with opening a bank account, registering as a Berlin citizen and getting any Erasmus forms I needed to get signed. They were always very friendly and eager to help – which was a god send especially in the first few weeks of term.
I found academic life at university very different in Germany to the UK. They place a great emphasis on group work – all assignments are done in groups of two or three. This contrasts greatly with the UK system where even the hint of having conferred on an assignment brings accusations of plagiarism. I really enjoyed this method of learning as it promoted more discussion of the problems which helped me grasp some of the more complex ideas in my lectures. Another big difference is the two hour lectures in Germany – these can really stretch your concentration but you get used to them fairly quickly. One thing I never quite got used to was having lectures at 8am, which I thought was a ridiculously early time to start (I’m informed that some German universities start even earlier). As a whole I think I prefer the German university system as it promotes more contact time and gives you more opportunity to discuss your ideas with other students.
Something I did find difficult was picking modules; the Maths department was quite rigid in its timetabling system which narrowed my options quite severely. This made the first week of term pretty frustrating, trying to sign up for the modules you actually want to take. There system is quite different to Warwick’s in so far as they take fewer but much larger modules. I took three modules per semester, which doesn’t sound a lot compared to the five modules per term you might take at Warwick but was a sizeable commitment.
An obvious worry going into Erasmus is the difficulty of learning maths in a foreign language. This turned out to be absolutely fine as I found about 70% of maths vocab to be the same word as in English and the rest you could guess from the context. This was a great load off the mind and was perhaps a difficulty that only maths students don’t have to deal with.
I decided to sign up for the pre semester language course offered by the TU Berlin and it was the best decision I could have made. My original reason was to improve my German as much as I could before starting my lectures. It turned out to be a great opportunity to meet new people who had also just arrived in Berlin but also a whole month to settle in and get to know the city before term starts. I couldn’t recommend one of these language courses enough; I can only imagine the stress I’d have had turning up the week before terms starts and having to organise everything on top of starting lectures. The course itself was good fun and was great opportunity to improve your spoken German. Mine was three hours per day and my teacher refused to speak in any language bar German which was a great help to my understanding.
Going on Erasmus was the best decision I’ve ever made, I made so many fantastic friends and feel like a learnt so much. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and really forced me stand on my own two feet for the year. Coming out of the year with a really good level of German is pretty much all I wanted from the experience but I got so much more than that. The year has left me with the confidence to live and work in another country and has left me with friends from all over the world. I can’t believe how lucky I was to be in Berlin and truthfully can’t believe it’s over now. I felt like I made the most of my time in Berlin and yet still feel like there was so much that I didn’t do. I suppose that’s the gift of doing Erasmus in such a great city…