An interview with an Erasmus student

Thomas Garcin, from the Universite Paris-Sorbonne, tells us all about his year abroad at UCL History 2015-16. 

What made you choose to study history at UCL?

Different things, including in part chance. Given Thomas Garcinmy special course (double degree, one in history, one in English Language, Literature, and Civilisations) going to an English speaking country was very natural. In the end I chose UCL because I wanted to experience the ‘global essence’ of London that I had been told about, and compare it with Paris. The top ranking of UCL decisively influenced my decision – it was an opportunity that could not be ignored.

What have you enjoyed most about studying at UCL History?

History has been a passion that I cultivated from an early age, and one thing I understood quickly is that there is no such thing as ”history”, but there are rather ”histories”. This is maybe what thrills me the most, confronting viewpoints, exploring versions but also to see how these histories are built and why. History, no matter how hard we try, is never neutral. When I was preparing my Erasmus exchange it was the opportunity of discovering the British methods and viewpoints that I looked forward to. UCL, with its numerous international students and teachers, went beyond my expectations. Furthermore France and Britain have a lot in common historically speaking, but we have different perspectives in many ways. In that sense, my modules about British Empire and Western political thought were very valuable. I already had experience of these subjects, but going further with a different perspective was really what I was searching for, and what I found. Historical facts can be read in books, but the UCL experience is about discussion and reflection – I would even dare to say ‘contestation’, something I’m still not used to given the culture of my home university. We are encouraged here to state our point of view, even to disagree with the teacher and to express it. This, along with the different form of exercises (essays are much shorter here than what I was used to producing, which doesn’t mean at all easier) was something that required the most adaptability.

I felt the academic staff, including tutors but also people in the department, were really on our side, ready to help no matter the issue. I knew that the department was here if I needed it. Same for facilities: they save a lot of stress, given the availability of resources in the library or the IT systems – properly working, a miracle – that we benefit from.

What’s it like studying in London?

Studying in London is great – sorry, nothing original here, I believe it is hard to find someone who thinks differently. London is full of interesting things to see and do, and others have described it a lot better than I would ever do. What I would like to emphasize though is the social aspect of university here. I was living in a catered Hall, Nutford House, which compared to my lonely experience in my flat last year proved to be far more sociable. Then there were the events organised by the department, like that great idea of a cocktail evening including students and tutors at the beginning of the year, just to meet each other and chat before the term starts. And of course there are the societies. It allows you to meet people from very diverse backgrounds, and to experience a lot of different activities, from gastronomy to dancing or whatever. University is not just about classes and courses, it is a place at the very centre of student life. The social aspect of university cannot be emphasized enough.

What do you consider are the most important aspects of your experience?

Again it will sound like a cliché, but I learned a lot about myself, beside the traditional knowledge acquired through university. It really helped me to reconsider my objectives in a more distant way, among other things for that matter, like the way I consider my country or who the people are who really matter to me at home. An experience like that encourages you to review things you may have considered unchangeable – and this is very healthy and valuable, especially refreshing when you meet people from different backgrounds that shake your vision of the world. I think one of the most important aspects of my experience here was indeed the people I met. Everyone, from teachers to students, had great stories and good lessons to share, and just this is worth the whole exchange.

What top 3 tips or pieces of wisdom would you give to future overseas students thinking of coming to study at UCL History as affiliates?

Firstly, like I said, studying in London is great, but to fully enjoy it is terribly expensive, and money issues need to be considered in advance. I highly recommend either to plan to work in London – it is easier here than in Paris, from what I saw – or like I did to work as much as you can the summer before going abroad in order to save money and enjoy your time here. It is generally well known, but I would emphasis this aspect because nothing is worse than to miss an opportunity by just not having the money you need.

Secondly – here I think mainly of students coming from France, for I do not really know how it works in other countries – the workload is highly deceptive. You might feel really at ease at the beginning of the year, but following the instructions of tutors and being careful about readings is essential, otherwise you will end up with far too much to do to prepare for the exams at the end of the year. It is really easy to get absorbed by social life, the amazing experiences and opportunities we have – after all, that’s the very reason for our Erasmus trip, and I don’t want to be a killjoy – however, working regularly is key to enjoying the academic aspect as much as the rest of the exchange. Maybe a good thing would be to just think a bit about what one’s expectations are of the upcoming year before leaving, in terms of success, career plans and the like, so as to enjoy the year having a clear conscience and awareness about work and opportunities. It can help for example to define in which areas one wants to invest himself or herself: do I want to develop my network and get job opportunities? Do I want to prepare for the next step in my academic curriculum (exams, competitive examinations)? Do I want to have a sort of gap year, to focus on my self-development and explore new areas? Asking these simple questions beforehand can save a lot of time and make sure to avoid any regrets.

Finally, the best thing to do is to ‘go for it’. Being slightly anxious about all these changes and all the things to do, the issues to deal with, the perspective of leaving home, changing environment … should not prevent anyone from going for the adventure, because it is really worth it. Some times are harder than others of course, but the worst thing would be to not try at all. I genuinely believe that people evolve thanks to such an experience, and generally it is for the better.

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