The Erasmus programme began in 1987 with 3,244 students from 11 different countries. Since then, the programme has become more and more popular with students eager to experience a culture different from their own, immerse themselves in a foreign language and make international friends.

In ways, the programme quickly became a rite of passage akin to the J1 summer, the Leaving Cert holiday and the once in a lifetime trip to a Half-Moon party in Thailand. The programme was created to promote understanding between cultures and to inspire a new generation of independent learners, that workplaces are eager to employ. 

After the terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, it was agreed that understanding and tolerance between European countries was now more important than ever. Yet, the Erasmus programme now faces a challenge that many never saw coming.

With Dublin Airport still at an almost standstill and the introduction of 14 day quarantines, students hoping to move abroad in September are left in limbo. As universities try to adapt to the “new normal” and social distancing guidelines, their International Departments make important decisions to ensure the safety of Irish students.

“Callaly was advised by her International Affairs Officer not to make any payments for accommodation in her host country for the upcoming academic year, as her year abroad could not be guaranteed.”

For students like Grace Callaly from NUIG, the option of an Erasmus year was a deciding factor when choosing their college degree. “It’s one of the main reasons I choose to study this degree”, said Callaly. “I thought that it would give me life experience that I can’t otherwise get, and also develop my language skills in a way that’s impossible without being immersed in the culture.” Callaly was advised by her International Affairs Officer not to make any payments for accommodation in her host country for the upcoming academic year, as her year abroad could not be guaranteed.

The application and nomination process has been significantly slowed down as administrators watch the developing Covid-19 pandemic for signs of improvement. “Last year, I know Erasmus students had to register for modules with the University of Avignon (France) before May 21st but this year none of the Erasmus students have been contacted at all by the university,” said Callaly.

The Erasmus programme has always been described as a welcome addition to any CV, increasing students job prospects after graduation. For language students, time spent abroad is preferred as it shows the student spent time using the language in everyday life. Students worry that the cancellation of their semester or year abroad could have consequences further down the line. “It makes me worry that I won’t have the same quality of education as the years before me had.”

“Gibbons felt that residents of host countries would be slow to welcome travelling students as they try to recover from the devastation caused by the coronavirus.”

Fellow NUIG student Chloe Gibbons echoes these concerns. She had planned to study in Bologna, Italy for the academic year to improve her competency in the language. “Spending an entire academic year in Italy would do wonders to help me in being more confident speaking the language and getting used to the culture.” The sense of uncertainty around the academic year is an added worry in an already difficult and unprecedented time for students. “I was honestly terrified and still am of coronavirus, it has made it difficult for me to leave the house.” Gibbons felt that residents of host countries would be slow to welcome travelling students as they try to recover from the devastation caused by the coronavirus. “I don’t think we would be warmly welcomed by Italians especially with them only starting to recover from such a devastating time.”

Outgoing Erasmus students in UL were later grateful for the early decision when the university announced it was suspending the programme.  An email advising students not to book flights was followed by the complete cancellation of students’ exchanges. The decision was made before many of the host universities’ application deadlines for on campus accommodation.

Although, students were relieved to be given a sense of clarity the email was disappointing news at an already troubling time. A student from UL hoping to travel to Holland that would prefer to remain anonymous, voiced their frustration. “Personally, I was recently out of a long term relationship and one of the factors of us breaking up was the fact that I was going away on Erasmus… The fact that I wasn’t getting to even go to Holland just was a bit of a blow.” The email sparked a race to find accommodation for students that would have been preparing to travel abroad, under normal circumstances.

UL now ventures into un-chartered territory much like the rest of the country. As the Erasmus semester abroad was a mandatory component for several courses, students have no modules set up for them for first semester. “We’ve no idea what to expect next year.” DCU later announced “with regret, and after much consideration” that they were cancelling the Erasmus year abroad for the full 2020/21 academic year.

Students of Mary Immaculate College, Limerick have yet to receive the definite decision their University Limerick counterparts received. At the time of writing, Trinity College are set to give an update on their study abroad programme on 29th May. Meanwhile, UCC have advised some of its students to register with host universities that have agreed to accept incoming exchange students. However, they have also offered contingency plans for those that do not feel safe to travel.

Students in third level institutions that have yet to make a final decision understand the complexity and unprecedented nature of the situation. “I don’t blame them for not making a blanket decision yet”, said Callaly. “I can imagine they would have to answer to a million different questions before doing so and I’m sure they are trying to hold off the decision so they can give the best possible answer.”

While students acknowledge the risks that international travel now presents, some feel they would still embark on an Erasmus year if presented with the option. “I’m lucky to be in the position I am, health wise and everything else, where I would be comfortable travelling as things stand but I’m definitely empathetic to those who don’t feel the same way,” said Callaly.

The cancellation of several universities’ Erasmus programmes have given students who previously participated in the programme reason to reflect on their own experiences. Lucy Mythen (UCC) returned home from Rennes, France when the country went into lockdown. She realises how important the experience can be in a young person’s life, “for me it meant learning to be completely independent and getting out of my comfort zone!… I would have been more introverted at home. If the whole thing had been cancelled I would have been devastated because I knew it would be a turning point of sorts for me.”