During Easter, the Boar sat down with Sarath Varadarajan, a third-year Politics and International Studies student at Warwick, to talk to him about his ongoing year abroad, studying Social Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).
Sarath, it’s lovely to speak to you. Before we talk about your time at VUB, can the Boar ask why you decided to do a year abroad in the first place. Was it something you always wanted to do, or did you make the decision later on?
It was something I always wanted to do. I actually picked my uni choices based on what I could find out about their year abroad programmes because I thought that it’s an experience that you’re probably not going to get outside of uni. The opportunity to move to a completely new place in a different country or even continent for a year was something that always appealed to me. I think it’s important to have that experience to build yourself up as a person, so that’s why I decided to do it.
So why VUB? Was Brussels your first choice?
Actually, it wasn’t. My first choice was the National University of Singapore, but I got rejected. But Warwick told me that they’d just started entered a partnership with ten foreign universities including VUB, and I thought: “Hey, I do Politics and International Studies, and the EU is centred in Brussels, so I might as well [apply there]!”
The opportunity to move to a completely new place in a different country or even continent for a year was something that always appealed to me.
Had you been to Brussels or Belgium before?
No, I hadn’t been to a lot of places in Europe at all. I grew up in Asia and it was always really expensive to take a flight and go on a trip to Europe, so I’d only visited a couple of cities in Italy [before I started my year abroad]. I wasn’t even sure what Brussels was like! I just said to myself: “You know what, I’m going to explore as much as I can and I’m happy just to dive into the unknown and see what happens.”
How were your preparations leading up to your year abroad? What did you do over the summer last year?
The most important thing was making sure my application was sent in and finishing all my paperwork. I was really lucky as I have Irish citizenship so I didn’t have to worry about a visa for my year abroad. But I did have to find accommodation. I spent a lot of the time preparing where I was going to stay, and it wasn’t straightforward – I had some issues with the university accommodation. My friend and I were calling estate agents and trying to work out where we could stay – that was the bulk of my prep before I came.
How were the first few weeks settling in and adjusting to a new city and culture?
We came into Brussels unsure about our accommodation, so we had to stay in an Airbnb for a little bit before we moved in [to our permanent accommodation]. Luckily, Brussels is such a big international hub where most people do speak English, so I didn’t have a problem communicating with people.
Brussels is really cool, with a good mix of everything you’d want!
What do you think of Brussels as a city?
Brussels was a city I didn’t really know anything about. It wasn’t like Paris where you think “I want to see the Eiffel tower on my first day.” Instead, it was like, “Oh ok, what do we do now?” But that was nice. We spent the first few weeks researching what’s culturally significant, and what we could go see. It was really fun exploring Brussels.
How is Brussels as a student city?
Brussels is a fun place, and the people are friendly. It’s big enough that it’s considered a big city, but small enough that you can get anywhere by walking. It’s paced in a way where people aren’t super stressed about getting anywhere, but it’s also not super slow. I think it’s a good middle ground.
What is the nightlife like? How does it compare to Warwick Pop?
Nothing compares to Pop! Pop’s truly a unique experience that I don’t think anyone will get anywhere. But Brussels has good nightlife. There’s a big variety of clubs and music scenes. There’s this really important techno club called Fuse, which people from all around Europe visit. Apparently Daft Punk played some of their sets there before they were famous! There’s also a lot of culture in Brussels. If you’re into art, there’s a plenty to see. Where I live, if you take a right at the end of the road, there’s a street with loads of little galleries with lots of featured artists hanging about. So yeah, Brussels is really cool, with a good mix of everything you’d want
What is VUB like? How does the academic life compare to Warwick?
VUB is a completely different student experience which is why I wanted to go on a year abroad in the first place. In terms of academia, because not all of my modules are politics modules, I get to branch out. Brussels finds itself at the centre of a lot of the classes you end up taking – I took a class on urban geography where they talk to you about the culture and urban development of Brussels. It’s cool that I get to do a variety of different stuff.
It’s also really fun making friends from different cultures and learning about them.
Do you benefit from the different experiences and expertise of international professors?
Yeah definitely! Some of the professors here are really interesting. At VUB, they let you take Master’s modules, so in my first term I took a module called ‘Challenges to Democracy’. The professor who ran this was an expert in the field of democratic innovation and deliberative democracies – he’s actually directly involved in ranking how free countries are across the world! This module changed the way I thought about democracy and what it means to us right now.
What is the student community at VUB like? How was immersing yourself with students from different backgrounds?
At the start we got help from the Erasmus Student Network, a society which connects all the Erasmus or year abroad students at VUB. We ended up meeting a lot of other students on their year abroad and I became good friends with some Italians and Germans, so we took some classes together. Everyone on a year abroad wants to make friends and hang out. I think being on this year abroad is a pretty social experience.
Tell the Boar about all the travelling that you can do on your year abroad.
It’s crazy! I don’t think I realised how small Europe was before going on my year abroad. From where I am right now, it’s about two hours to Amsterdam and four hours to Paris. If you decide one day that you want to see the Eiffel tower and the Louvre over the weekend, you can take a FlixBus (a coach service that goes all around Europe) on Saturday and spend the weekend there. Travelling is also reasonably priced. A FlixBus direct ticket from Brussels to Paris costs only seven euros!
Can you sum up the best bits about doing a year abroad?
There’s so much! I think immersing yourself in a completely different country is the best part – you will never get an experience like this again. Just the opportunity to say “Wow, I’m in Europe now. I don’t know any of these social norms, but this is my year to learn how my continental neighbours live!” is worth it. It’s also really fun making friends from different cultures and learning about them. And from an educational standpoint, it’s cool to go to another university, see how they run things there, and be taught by expert professors who are world leaders in their subjects.
It can be scary going on a year abroad but it’s so, so worth it.
What is your advice for the second-years who are getting ready for a year abroad?
I know a lot of my friends had a lot of nerves before their year abroad, but I just want to say, it will work out. If you’re in the processes of applying and you’ve got loads of paperwork and are feeling stressed, just get through all this administration stuff. It’s tough at the start, but it will be worth it. And make sure your accommodation is sorted out!
And finally, what would you say to any first-year who may be on the fence about deciding about applying for a year abroad?
It can be scary going on a year abroad but it’s so, so worth it. It broadens your horizons and makes you think differently about the way you live and who you are as a person. I think you learn a lot, not only about how to live in a new place, but also about yourself and how you experience your life. Go for it!