Rosie Harris left us for a year to study at the Universidad de Jaen in Spain. Following a year away, Rosie has returned and reflects on her Erasmus experience.
Can you summarise what you have been up to for the past year?
I have been studying psychology in a Spanish university through the medium of Spanish.
What was the highlight of your Erasmus visit?
It’s very hard to pick out a single thing! Having an opportunity that combined all of the things I love: travelling, learning new languages, meeting new people and experiencing new cultures; and having been able to experience all these things whilst continuing my degree has been fantastic! One of the main highlights for me was getting to know Spain and its culture and to experience that through the local people. Spain has a lot of culture and to experience the fiestas, Holy Week and to the see the processions amongst tapas, olives and flamenco has been amazing.
What was the most challenging aspect?
The most challenging aspect for me was definitely the language barrier at the beginning and writing exams and coursework in Spanish. I had had an intensive Spanish course in Barcelona in the summer before beginning my Erasmus however the accents and slang used in Andalucía are completely different to that of Barcelona and it felt like I took a giant backwards step when I first arrived!
The ‘what ifs’ before leaving would closely follow the language difficulty. It’s almost enough to put you off going entirely! Will I find somewhere to live? With nice people? Will I learn the language? Will I understand what the lecturer is saying? It was an intense 2 weeks before leaving however once I arrived these worries disappeared almost instantly.
What do you feel you have gained from your experiences in Spain?
I have definitely become more confident in myself, especially in relation to travelling to a different country on my own and finding accommodation and interacting with the local people and so on. Now I won’t rule out things that other people perceive as challenging, as I know that ultimately, it is all a matter of perspective and ‘challenging’ to one person is ‘easy’ to another.
I have gained invaluable friendships with people from all over the word. The Erasmus scheme definitely brings people much closer together and you end up considering everyone as your extended family!
Lastly, I have gained Spanish! This has given me numerous opportunities if I would like to travel and work abroad in the future, which is looking quite likely!
What advice would you give to other students who are considering taking part in the Erasmus programme?
If you are worried about the language I would definitely advise going to the country the summer before, for as long as you can, to immerse yourself in the language before you begin your Erasmus. As then you will start picking things up, or simply get an ear for the accents, and you won’t be bombard as much once you begin your course.
Another other piece of advice would be; only speak in the language that you will be communicating in (i.e. No English!). I was very lucky in that Jaen is not very touristy and not many of the locals spoke English. So my English ended up reserved for Skype calls to my parents! Looking back I find this helped enormously and there were a lot of people at the end of the year who had stuck in little groups, of people from their country, who wished that they’d made themselves more approachable by speaking in the host language, also in aiding with learning the language.
Finally, explore the country as much as you’re able and immerse yourself in the country’s traditions and festivities. The year will go by so fast!
Today we are pleased to introduce a guest post from one of our former students. Keely Brookes graduated from our BSc Programme in 2009 and then completed our MSc in Health Psychology in 2010. Since then Keely spent several months volunteering in Haiti, a life-changing experience she recounts for us here. It is wonderful to see our students going on to use the skills they developed at Cardiff Met in such diverse ways:
After feeling in a rut, I wanted a change, a different experience where I could help others and still use my psychology degree. So, I decided on the Caribbean, more specifically, Haiti. Purely by chance I came across a job posting for a research and teaching internship at Enstiti Travay Sosyal ak Syans Sosyal or ETS (Institute of Social Work and Social Science). So, after much debate I booked a three month trip to Haiti. But…this wasn’t without apprehension. After reading the security reports advising against travel to the country, it would be unfair to say I wasn’t a little nervous about the decision I had just made. But, after lots of support, I boarded the plane in Heathrow at the beginning of February this year.
Flying into Haiti was a bit of a blur…I was so nervous I don’t think I took much in. I waited in the Caribbean heat for my lift from the airport in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. It was from my soon to be Creole teacher and social work master’s student at ETS, who later became a very good friend who showed and taught me so much about the ‘real’ Haiti. We drove the hour journey to the school in Thomassin, near Petion-Ville (slightly south of the capital). The journey itself was interesting – so many things to see and ask about, some intriguing, like, why are there so many painted and colourful trucks full of people (which I soon learnt were taptaps, and they soon became my main mode of transport) and what are they selling on the markets, and, some heart wrenching, like seeing all the children begging on the streets, seeing tents where people still live after the earthquake and seeing piles of rubble that were once homes, schools, shops or churches.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as we turned off the main road and travelled down a muddy, washed away road but this certainly wasn’t it – behind locked gates there was a beautiful (and very big house), which in part formed a part of the university campus grounds (with a classroom and a school office) and in part formed the housing for ETS staff and Creole language students in dormitory style rooms. When I arrived I meet some of the house staff, had a tour (which included an explanation of how to have a bucket shower!) and was greeted with a traditional Haitian meal of rice and beans.
I met with the director and founder of the school the day after I arrived to discuss my role in more detail. Initially, I was asked to teach the university students that attended ETS, an English class, a research methods class and a social science class. This was daunting as I had never taught before. So, I talked it over with the new people I had met and they gave me so many ideas for my first classes that it began to feel manageable. I had soon written the syllabi, lesson plans and assignments. So, a few days after I arrived, I made my way to SOPUDEP,a school in Petion-Ville that taught primary and secondary school aged children, where the university also rented a classroom. This wasn’t quite in the same condition as our classroom in Thomassin, it was a rundown building, with only holes in the bricks for windows, old and broken chairs, a chalk board and no working bathroom. It was also incredibly hot and loud, however the school was a lot more convenient and cheaper to access. The only way to really describe how I felt at this point is culture shock.
So, on that fateful Saturday after being squashed in a taptap, the first class was advanced English – I was literally sweating, nervous and no idea what was about to happen. I had 10 students staring at me and waiting for something – so as planned we kicked off with an icebreaker and did some vocabulary and grammar activities so I could assess what level they were at. Overall it went well and English classes turned out to be a great way for me to learn about Haiti. During the break I opened some crackers and shared them to the people around me. As they made 4 crackers literally go around 8 people, this was the first time I saw how generous Haitian people are; a Haitian proverb is “Moun ki pa manje pouk o l’ pa janm grangou” which means “those who don’t eat alone are never hungry”. The main problem I soon realised I would have is I couldn’t speak Creole (Haiti’s national language). I found using a translator difficult and they found me having an English accent challenging – it was certainly a new experience for everyone and it was something I knew I would quickly need to adapt to.
I soon began to love teaching, became very good friends with my translator and the students were amazing. In total I ended up teaching 11 different classes, ranging from health across the lifespan, to health psychology, to referencing, with anything from ten to fifty students in each class, and in any style from workshops to lectures. The second biggest part of my role within the university was research. Two big commissioned projects had been conducted but the results needed analysing and writing into strategic briefs for publishing – which was my job. The first was on tourism and the second on the economic and social cost of the cholera epidemic that occurred after the 2010 earthquake. Finally, I also helped students with research projects and what struck me the most is that a lot of students were doing projects because they wanted to and because they cared about the topic, not because it was a university requirement directly. One project which I really loved being a part of was one which explored why teenage pregnancy has increased since the earthquake. Using interviews the student went and interviewed teenage parents to find the underlying reasons – reading it for the first time I had tears in my eyes as the reality of the earthquake past the physical damage really stuck. The student has now been accepted to present her study at a conference later this year – I couldn’t be prouder. If you talk to any student about why they are in university in Haiti the answer is simple – they want to help, they want to give something to their community, to help those who are suffering – whether it’s by doing mental health interventions, counselling, teaching or economy to help inform policy – anything to just help those who need it, it’s truly selfless.
For a long time the language barrier was hard for me. I took Creole classes and practiced every day, but for a long time I felt like I was making no progress. I realised how it feels to be dependent on somebody. When I arrived I didn’t know anything – how to get to the shops, how to buy food from the markets, how to use the transport – for everything I relied on somebody else, primarily my amazing and patient Creole instructor and friend. But, things got easier and day by day I became more independent, my language skills improved and I learnt how to navigate by myself – it was certainly hard but the more confident I was in my language skills the easier I found doing simple things by myself, like using the taptap and buying groceries at the market. Practicing with people in our local community, especially the local children was the best thing for me.
I spent a lot of time at friend’s families houses, enjoying local food, beer and dancing – for me this is what made my time there so special – seeing the ‘real Haiti’. Social life was a huge part of my time there – from going on student trips to the beach, learning Kompa (Haiti’s national dance), going to Karnival, watching RAM (a famous voudou band), student talent shows, drinking local beer or rhum with friends and having tours of different areas or communities by students who wanted you to see and understand Haiti and their lives.
It wasn’t all easy though, I saw a lot of different homes and living conditions and I learnt the importance of conserving what resources you have – whether it’s water, food, electricity or even your notepad. An example and one day I will never forget is visiting one of the biggest IDP (internally displaced peoples) camps in Haiti where people still live after the earthquake. As we drove in I had so many questions but I couldn’t speak without crying so I sat there just taking it in, thinking about how after so much money was invested into the country after the 2010 earthquake people are still forced to live in these conditions, with no clean water, at risk of cholera, malnutrition and violence. It’s truly tragic.
A big stereotype of Haiti is that it is unsafe to go on local transport, to buy food on the street or to walk around on your own and it’s not all easy and attention is very much on you as a foreigner but I lived a local life, using local transport, eating local food and socialising with local people. I felt safe and loved every minute – and ended up staying seven months instead of the planned three.
I travelled around an amazing and beautiful country, ate so much fresh fruit, vegetables and fish, tried every local dish imaginable, learnt a new language, and met some amazing people – locals, students, children and other volunteers. Despite, heartache, devastation and loss, the people I encountered and who became friends for life in Haiti are the most loving, kind and generous people. The sense of family and community is something that will always stay with me and something which I admire. For me professionally, this volunteer experience has provided more than I could have imagined. I have learnt how to teach, how to facilitate and lead groups and how to supervise. I have learnt how to run workshops and how to deliver a lecture. I learnt about disaster and international psychology and research and the role of the profession within a different culture. Personally, I learnt to appreciate and be grateful for everything you have and often take for granted and that I can adapt to new and challenging situations. I learnt about a different way of life, culture and country – from food, music and art to marriage, children, family and religion. Overall it was an amazing once in a lifetime experience.
Today we have a guest post by Alison Walker, Lecturer in Work Based Learning, who discusses the Department of Applied Psychology’s expanding provision of work based learning and professional development opportunities:
Whatever role you have within an organisation, your employer will want you to participate in continuing professional development. Whether it’s keeping up to date with new technologies gaining additional qualifications or learning new skills, the workplace is a centre for lifelong learning.
What can we do to help prepare for that first job?
In 2012 we introduced some new work based learning modules to the BSc programme, and the start of the new academic term brings more new modules which expands our initial professional development (IPD) to the final year students.
What is initial professional development?
Initial Professional Development is a multi-faceted process of personal and professional development which runs throughout the degree. It consists of tutorials, seminars and workshops on critical thinking and reflection, work experience and career planning and a commitment to developing students’ potential which underpins modules on the degree programme.
It may seem very early to be thinking about a career at the start of three years of study, but every choice that a student makes has an impact on their future. To work hard or to party? To attend lectures or stay in bed? To submit the best work possible or do assignments at the last minute? All of these decisions affect the quality of work and so ultimately the classification of degree achieved; but more than that, it demonstrates an attitude to study and professional practice which they will take into the workplace with them.
Initial professional development aims to give students the skills they need to achieve as a student, to give them the experience they need to find that first graduate post and develop the right attitude for a successful career in their chosen area.
So what does that mean for the students?
Firstly it means that all first year students have weekly tutorials for academic and personal support. They also study Psychology for Learning and Work, which starts by developing critical thinking, reading and reflective skills, preparing students for the demands of the academic work they will encounter and supporting them through a process of planning, review and reflection. This helps them to recognise the importance of independent learning skills and to take responsibility for their own learning.
Career planning is also an important part of the module, with students researching chosen careers and evaluating their own motivation, ability and personality against the needs of the chosen role. Students are encouraged to investigate a range of different roles which may be appropriate for them.
Regular tutorials continue into the second year, following a programme of action planning and reflective review. Students are given the opportunity to do a short work placement which gives them insight into the different contexts where they may choose to specialise and students can choose to focus their work placement in one of a number of professional pathways, with an emphasis on reflection and the relationship between theory and practice.
In the final year, students have the option to do another more challenging work placement, providing yet more experience in applying their learning to professional practice.
Initial Professional Development draws together employability skills and attributes with work experience, critical thinking and reflection to form a solid basis from which students can continue to develop personally and professionally for the rest of their lives. It is not just about skills but also attitude; a self-aware and realistic view of the world which will enable the student to achieve their goals.