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Experience 16 – ” Life changing experience, even for a mature student.”

Mary Burton-Quinn

Posted: 31 August, 2017


Going to university for me was the fulfilment of a long held wish to go to college. Having reared my 3 girls I finally got the opportunity to go and enrolled in a BA degree course in UCC as a mature student in 2010.  Having decided to learn a new language I enrolled in first year Spanish, little realizing the journey it would take me on. I loved attending college as a mature student and consequently, what started off as a 3 year BA degree ended up as a 4 year BA International degree as I decided to take up the opportunity to do an Erasmus year abroad. Looking back now, my four years studying in UCC were, without doubt, four of the most challenging and the most rewarding years.

I went to Alicante in Spain in 2012 armed with only a few words of spoken Spanish and a very large dictionary. Within a week of arriving I quickly realized that nobody spoke English there so I had to learn some Spanish pretty quickly. There were five more young students from UCC and together we faced both the challenge and the hilarity of going to daily lectures where we understood not a word. But it got easier and ‘Google translate’ became our best friend.

The real turning point for me happened on St Patrick’s Day in Alicante when I decided to make Irish Coffees for some Cuban friends in the hostel on my street where I used the internet for study every day. The staff there spoke little or no English and I was very reticent about using the little Spanish I had learnt.  Many Irish coffees later I realized I had lost my inhibitions and had begun to converse in Spanish, and all those hours of learning vocabulary, grammar and translations finally started to pay off – my Spanish teacher in UCC would have been proud –  que fantastico!


After that there was no going back and I used every opportunity to use my bad Spanish. I did ‘intercambios’ with anyone and everyone who wanted a language exchange. It began to open doors and enabled me to speak with local people in shops, bars and restaurants, to be able to engage with traders in the local Mercado and to socialize with Spanish families in their homes and feel a part of their culture. None of this would have been possible without having some language and immersion has to be one of the best ways for any student to improve their oral language.

Fast forward 2 years later having graduated I began working in the International Office in Cork Institute of Technology dealing with incoming and outgoing Erasmus students. I felt at home in the job from the beginning as I could identify with the students. I knew what it was like to be a new incoming student with a low level of English and I knew what it was like to be an outgoing Erasmus student heading abroad to a new country and study through a new language so I feel well equipped to give them advice when they need it.


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My Erasmus year abroad as a mature student has been life-changing, opening up a whole new appreciation of other cultures and other languages.  I made life-long Spanish friends during my year in Alicante and return there regularly. I learnt that without the local language you cannot truly experience the local culture or the people.  I learnt that the secret of learning a new language is daring to speak it and not being afraid of making mistakes and taking every opportunity to practice.  I learnt that you have to go outside your comfort zone to experience and learn new things. I have a huge admiration for people who speak a second language and for all the Erasmus students who come here to improve their language and for our students who dare to venture on this fantastic journey abroad.  The Erasmus + Programme has made this possible for us all.

I have done full circle from being an Erasmus student to managing Erasmus students and I am forever grateful to the Erasmus Programme for helping me to make this possible. I would advise any student, mature or otherwise, thinking about going on Erasmus to grasp the opportunity and ‘Just Do It’. For those students who are going to improve their language, be prepared to put in the effort and you will reap the rewards.

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