I often liken this quaint little island of ours to Hobbiton in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. We dominate a very limited amount of territory which is geographically isolated from other major lands, and our inhabitants make up a vertically challenged and somewhat hairy community who have a penchant for food and fireworks. Yes, we are most definitely hobbits of the Shire. And what of our youth? Do they remain in Bag End to lead peaceful yet simple lives? Or do they long for adventure and an acquisition of worldly knowledge in foreign domains?
Theologian and humanist Desiderius Erasmus had travelled across different campuses around Europe to gather various academic and cultural perspectives. So too must we venture out into the big wide world to see what lies out there in mainland Europe and beyond. This holds particularly true for Maltese students. As majestic as our dear island is, it is cut off from foreign borders and the internet can only give us a filtered Instagram sneak-peek of living abroad. Wikipedia entries alone won’t let you prepare your own meals in a communal kitchen. You don’t get to haul 20Kg of dirty laundry across an entire campus just by watching travel documentaries. You don’t get to be snowed in for five days and have a ration fight in a supermarket because of a blizzard if you stay in Malta. Staying here throughout your studies won’t give you the chance to build bridges for your future. Three months studying in a foreign country can land you an internship with your dream company, or a highly sought-after rapport with some of the most esteemed lecturers in your field of work. So many unique study-units await you at the University of Living-Abroad.
Our opportunities to network outside of Malta have greatly expanded since we joined the EU. The University of Malta offers its students the chance to study abroad for a short period of time in an array of countries, and a total of 1,322 students have so far taken part in a mobility programme over the past 14 years. That’s 1,322 young Maltese people who have gained experience in travel. That’s 1,322 young graduates with that little extra something to go down in their résumé, increasing their job prospects. However, there is so much more to all of this than just scoring points on your CV.
Going on an exchange programme gives you time to get to know yourself. It will give you the breathing space to discover who you are when you are alone with your thoughts, especially if you opt for non-shared residency. It will test your sense of independence. You will assess yourself on how to deal with challenging scenarios on your own, without close friends or family nearby to guide you. It will make you acquire some much needed domestic skills. Two of the greatest lessons I had learnt from living abroad are toilet cleaning and the art of choosing fabric-conditioners. You might start to scarily sound like your mother when discussing fabric scents and toilet-brush techniques, but it will instil a sense of self-sufficiency. You will also learn to stick to a budget and manage your own finances for the sake of survival. Your peers will take you seriously for having these skills, and the greatest reward from all of this is knowing that you did it all by yourself.
Signing up for an exchange programme will also highlight the difference between our campuses and those abroad. Our campus is a vibrant intellectual terrain, grazed by a legion of very friendly cats. Yet it is only a lecturing ground for students, and not a residing one. Once we are done from lectures, we head home to our parents, and campus life only resumes come eight o’clock the following morning. Living on campus is quite an alien concept to Maltese students. Imagine a student village which is primarily made up of colleges which host both lecture halls and dormitories. Combine that with two clubs, three restaurants, a supermarket and a games room for each college, and you’ve got yourself student heaven. If the nearby villages and towns weren’t so appealing, you wouldn’t even have to leave campus. You can watch hung-over groups of first years walking back to their dorms at 4am like extras in Michael Jackson’s Thriller. You may even be lucky enough to draw the curtains from your second floor dormitory to witness a naked university rugby team streaking across the campus grounds. You may just as well attend your lecture in your PJs because it’s only two doors down from your room, and no one’s going to bat an eyelid. It’s just like being a freshman in an American college movie. It’s wild. It’s fun. It’s a fabulous jungle which will host many happy memories for you.
Your time abroad doesn’t only have to be about self-reflection. On such expeditions, you’ll get to make some amazing friends from all corners of the globe, and you can be sure that your paths will cross again at some point, somewhere in the world. I forged some of the greatest friendships at the University of Kent, and not a day goes by that I do not think about them or our hilarious antics. You will also discover how much you miss your friends back home, and at some point, homesickness will kick in in some form or other. My homesickness presented itself in the form of several Kinnie cravings in the middle of the night.
Go somewhere where temperatures drop below 0°C. Choose a country where English is not the language of instruction. Learn to swear in the vernacular tongue. Try the local cuisine, no matter how dodgy it may sound at first. Run out of your parent’s door onto that plane shouting, ‘I’m going on an adventure!’ Have a great time and good luck.