Chasing dreams and kicking goals

By Erin Cronin, Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of International Relations.

For the past four months, I have been living and studying in Brussels, Belgium; the “Heart of Europe”. While over here I’ve had the most incredible opportunities, both personal and educational. In choosing my study abroad location, I struggled in deciding and jumped back and forth between the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands. In the end, I took a risk at applying for a small, English-speaking College called Vesalius College in Belgium, and it is the best decision I’ve possibly ever made.

The rest of Europe is just a hop, skip and jump away

Living in Europe, everything is close. Living in the UK at a young age and having been back on holidays, I had an idea of how close countries were to another, however until you live in mainland Europe it’s impossible to imagine the proximity of everything. From my accommodation, I could be in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany or France in just under 2 hours. Taking a flight, less than two hours from Brussels and you’re covering most of Western and Central Europe. Compared to Australia, where a 45 minute drive to university is my norm, the fact that the available transport can have you in another country in such a short timeframe is outstanding, and certainly an opportunity I took advantage of.

While on exchange, I interspersed my studying with the occasional trip, both outside of the country and within Belgium. I was lucky enough to visit the Netherlands, France, England, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Austria on weekends and our fall-break, however I also utilised my time to further immerse myself in the Belgian culture. Living in Brussels – a bustling, internationally-recognised city – there was always something to do or explore. Belgium, although geographically quite small, hosts three different regions: Wallonia, Brussels and Flanders. Although all in a close vicinity to another, each has different cultural, linguistic and geographical characteristics. Spending time travelling within Belgium itself – to cities such as Brugge, Ghent or Dinant – were day trips that felt like travelling to a completely different country.

Unreal opportunities and career-defining moments

The ability to travel was not the primary, nor the best opportunity I’ve had while studying in Belgium. That title would go to the experiences I’ve had while over here, particularly those that relate to my future professional endeavours. Brussels is aptly nicknamed the “Heart of Europe” or the “Capital of Europe” due to the number of both international and European institutions it hosts. NATO, the European Commission, the European Union, the European Parliament, WCO, UNESCO, WHO, UNHCR, UNDP, and the World Bank are just a handful of the organisations that are located in Brussels, and the community has a focus that reflects this international perspective. As a Bond student studying my Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of International Relations, the ability to not only live but study in such an internationally respected region has opened the doors to numerous opportunities.

Through my host university, I have had the opportunity to attend both the Belgian and European Parliaments, attending events and meeting political officials. I’ve been to lectures by key figures in UNESCO, EASO, the United Nations Human Rights Office, and by the advisor to the President of NATO, among others. All of these have been eye-opening experiences, and ones that cannot be gained anywhere else in the world. However, the culminating experience for me would be attending the European Parliament as a guest for the ‘High-Level Conference on the 30th Anniversary of the Rights of the Child’. Sitting in the plenary, alongside academics, politicians and a range of practitioners in the field, I had the opportunity to hear from the Queen of Belgium, the Head of the European Parliament, and a range of distinguished guests. Attending alongside other students and a Professor from my host university, this was a pivotal moment in my exchange experience and one that I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to partake in.

Attending the EU Parliament as a guest for a high-level conference

Making the most of subject choices

At Vesalius College, I have been able to take subjects that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to take back in Australia. While studying abroad, I’ve taken a full-time study load, where five subjects at Vesalius is equivalent to four at Bond. These have been: Global Politics; Introduction to Comparative Regional Studies (from an EU perspective); International Organisations and Global Governance; NATO and Transatlantic Approaches to Security, and; Understanding Contemporary Conflicts in the Euro-Mediterranean Region. IR in Europe has a strong focus on organisational relations, and I reflected this in my subject choosing. I also had the incredible opportunity to learn from key academics in the fields of ‘Women, Peace and Security’, and on conflicts in the Middle East. The closeness of this region to Europe makes a conceptual understanding that much easier and the subjects I’ve taken on exchange, although extremely different to those I study back at Bond, have certainly shaped the field of IR I would like to progress into.

Turning dreams into reality

I have always wanted to live and work in Europe, but I have always seen it as a dream than an actual possibility. However, after having spent the last four months living in Brussels and studying IR in one of the most global-facing cities in Europe, it has solidified my intention to return. Personally, I have struggled in determining a set career goal to work towards. My time on exchange has confirmed my area of interest and has certainly shaped my perspective on the opportunities available, and given me a clear goal to work towards upon returning to Bond next semester.

My top tips:

1. Immerse yourself in the culture of your host country

Going on exchange can be a great opportunity to also spend time travelling, particularly if you travel to Europe where the accessibility of other countries is unimaginable. Make the most of this, however do not sacrifice the ability to become immersed in your host country/city; it often has more to it than meets the eye. While it can be easy to plan to country-hop every weekend, spending time discovering your host country and the intricate details of it can make the area feel more like home.

2. Break free of the exchange student bubble

Going on exchange, it can be easy to gravitate towards other study abroad students as you’re all going through a similar process of integration, and are often experiencing many of the same emotions. While it can be brilliant to make great friends with others on exchange – indeed, some of my best friends on exchange have been other exchange students – be wary on sectioning yourself off with only those students who are also leaving at the end of the semester. Going abroad is a great opportunity to make lasting friendships, and these can include with full-time students at your host university; make sure to be friendly to everyone!

3. Don’t waste a single second!

Recognise the opportunity you’ve been lucky enough to experience and take full advantage of it. Your time on exchange will pass quicker than you can imagine, and before you know it you’ll be walking out of your university, having a chat with friends or looking at the scenery of your new home for the last time.

My time on exchange has been the best four months of my life, and the opportunities I’ve had, and friendships I’ve developed, have left me already planning my next trip back. I would urge all Bond students to consider the possibility of going on exchange; it’s a truly once in a lifetime opportunity, and you will not be disappointed!

Destination: Belgium

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