Arriving as a young student, staying as a guest, leaving as an adult. The experience of Erasmus or Creole can be challenging as well as rewarding.
The students take on a guest role in a completely new situation. How do they deal with it?
University Town – Ljubljana
During the fieldwork in Ljubljana, I found myself standing in front of a bulletin board surrounded by the student dormitories of Ljubljana. The bulletin board stands in the middle of a little green area between the dormitories. Although this space is nice and green, there are no benches to enjoy it. It seemed like an area that the students just pass through when going from one place to another. This board is the only thing, which can stop them while they are walking through the space. This makes the bulletin board interesting for my research because I wanted to deal with the situation of international students in Ljubljana, who are also passing by this board on a regular basis to get to their rooms. The board captures a fixed point on their way to university and back home. The bulletin board itself has different kinds of information on it, but it seemed that it is not used very frequently anymore. There are some marks of previous usage on it, but at this specific moment, there were only three placards for a Jazz concert and one for a film event pinned on it. It is located in the middle of the dormitories where different people live together and they are probably passing by this board on a daily basis. These are the same dormitories that are also recommended to international students who are coming to Ljubljana via programs like Erasmus or Creole. As both Slovenian and international students are living there, these dormitories become a place of encounter. Standing in front of the bulletin board, I asked myself:
How do international guest students organize their lives in Ljubljana? How do they integrate into a Slovenian-speaking society? How do they, as guest students, reconcile their own expectations with those of the host country? What is the situation like for international students in Ljubljana?
During my fieldwork in Ljubljana, I found that the life of an international student in this city is shaped by many different influences and power factors. First of all, to understand what the situation is like for international guest students, it is important to know more about the educational context in Ljubljana. English-language classes at Ljubljana University, whether they are for Erasmus students or students in the international MA programme Creole, take place within Slovenia’s “Language Policy”.
This “Language policy” means that the whole education, including the University, has to take place in Slovene. As Slovenia is quite a small country, the language should be protected by this policy.
In order for the University of Ljubljana to be able to offer courses in English, they need to find loopholes. Either they can offer the same course in two languages, or they need to ask the Slovenian students, if it is ok for them to do the course in English.
“Like you go to the first lesson and she [the professor] asks, are you ok with it if I do it in English? And if there are enough English-speaking people there, then she does the lesson in English.” (Creole student, Ljubljana as guest University and former Erasmus student)
Generally, the city of Ljubljana has become increasingly attractive for international tourists in the past few decades. It comes as no surprise, then, that it has also became more popular for Erasmus or Creole students to go there as international students for one or two semesters.
Question of Research
The host university, in turn, is supposed to adapt to the needs of international incoming students. This now brings me to the main aim of this research.
I wanted to find out, how the relation between the international student as a guest and the host city positions the students in a status of liminality, and in which ways they manage to negotiate their liminal positions and, finally, how that exerts an impact on their perception of self and other.
As I was interested in the life of international students, I decided to use different methods for my research. I chose to focus mainly on observations and interviews. I did four interviews with international students from four different countries: Spain, Italy, Hungary and Czech Republic, who are all studying in the department of ethnology in Ljubljana. This is a smaller department in comparison to economics for example. Therefore, classes are much smaller and personal contacts are easier to establish and maintain. I also talked to students from Slovenia who are also studying in this department. To get an idea of what the official point of view is like so that I could approach the topic from a different perspective, I also had an interview with the International Office in Ljubljana on my first day there. As I came to Ljubljana as a student, I had things in common with the students who I talked to. During my observations, I got the chance to talk to different people. I did observations in different places. I went to Preseren Square, the main square in Ljubljana, to the dormitories I mentioned above, and also went to Tivoli park. At those places, I had the chance to get an idea of what it is like to move to this city and get to know the city as a city for Erasmus exchange. I also went to “Café Ziferblat” which I will describe later on as well as an international party, organized by the university’s international office, and had the chance to talk to people from many different countries and different studies. It is interesting how the experiences differ, based on the size of the department or faculty. In the following I will concentrate on the department of ethnology as I got a greater insight into what it is like to study in this department.
Self-positioning as a Researcher
My own position had a positive impact on my fieldwork. As the researcher, I had the position of the stranger during the interviews. Following Simmel’s theory, the “stranger” is connected with objectivity and only shares some general qualities with the majority. One of these general qualities, which was important during my research about international students, was that I was also a student. (Simmel 1992). Hence, many issues they raised were familiar to me and from the outset there was a sense of mutual understanding. Furthermore, the fact that I was a non-Slovenian student encouraged them to share their concerns and thoughts with me, both as a stranger, as an anthropologist, and as a fellow student. However, contrary to Simmel’s stranger who stays, I have been a “stranger who moves on after some time” during my research in Ljubljana.
“This is the fact that he often receives the most surprising openness – confidences which sometimes have the character of a confessional and which would be carefully withheld from a more closely related person.” (Simmel 1950, p. 404)
As Simmel describes, people tend to withhold information from other persons who they feel are close, for example because they are related or they are connected otherwise through networks or institutions. As these students are considered as guests, they tend to withhold bad personal feelings from their hosts, for example the international office or the social structure of Ljubljana in general. The reason why they do not talk about problems that much is because they already got help when they arrived and they feel like they need to act in a specific way. Since I am not a part of this relation between the guest and the host, I could also get information about problems that occur when you are an international student in Ljubljana. It seemed like it was a source of relief for them to talk about their personal situation as well. Because of this position, I could also get a very emotional insight, when it comes to expectation, disappointment, or anxiety. As I talked mainly to students of a small department, the situation may differ if you look at other university faculties in Ljubljana, because the number of international students has a big impact on the offered courses. Faculties with a big number of students can offer two courses, one in Slovene and one in English, because they have enough students who attend these courses. Another reason is, that bigger faculties mostly have more contracts with other Universities and therefore, they have more international students coming each semester. This brought me to the following questions:
How does the hospitality have an effect on the way the students are positioning themselves in the community of Ljubljana? How do they find their position as a guest in the status of liminality? How does the relation of guest and host have an impact on the student’s life in Ljubljana?
Students as Guests
As I mentioned previously, the students are guests in Ljubljana. They come to the city as strangers and they leave again after one or two semesters. This fact has an impact on the students’ behaviour and their perception of self and other.
Meaning of hospitality
First of all, International students who are coming to Slovenia are strangers. They have neither a network nor a firmly established status which can reassure them of their position within the Slovenian community. They find themselves in a situation of great uncertainty, but also of great opportunity, as we will see. The international guests do have certain expectations when they first come to Ljubljana. But the host, the community in Ljubljana, also has expectations of the students. I aim to understand the relationship of guest and host by exploring the notion of hospitality since I argue that hospitality has an impact on the settling-in period of the students.
Hospitality can be defined as a gift, which the hosts give to guests who are often strangers. This gift includes space and time and aims at improving the stay of the guest. It should be seen as a real gift, which means that the host should not expect the guest to return the favour. Hospitality used to only be based on ethical and moral values but it is now also becoming a lawful one too, as Friese explains in her article “The limits of hospitality” (Friese 2009, p. 57). (See also Daniel Neugebauer’s text on Guest and host roles of refugees and helpers in Slovenia.)
There are two participants in hospitality. On the one hand there is the host, who is a part of the stable structured system and on the other hand there is the guest, who is mostly a stranger.
As Friese noticed, there has been a change in the system of hospitality. This means that it “[…] becomes a lawful right and duty to accommodate the stranger […]” (Friese 2009, p. 57). In this sense, the private hospitality becomes a part of our codified system. In this system of hospitality, the host is giving time and space to the guest. The host should accept the guest on the basis of human and civil rights as hospitality lies between these too concepts. Although the host acts under moral and ethical values, there is also the option to turn the guest away.
In this research, the guest went through the whole process of application. The host knows who is coming and also why.
The university’s International Office represents the hosts, particularly with regard to communication between the host and the guest. The International Office and the incoming students are in direct contact with each other even before the students’ arrival in Ljubljana. Therefore, the staff of the International Office is responsible for welcoming the students. Another task of the International Office is to provide helpful hints and tricks. When the students arrive in Ljubljana, they get a brochure with all the practical information in it. There is also a Buddy-program for the arriving students. The organisers of the Buddy-System plan day trips to other cities, parties, like the one I went to and other events. The parties take place on Thursdays and they call it their “Crazy Erasmus Thursday”.
Since the International Office does not expect the students to return the favour hospitality in social life, many students believe that they need to return it in a different, more informal way and direct their behaviour accordingly.
Role of the Guest
How does the role of the guest influence the student`s lives? Which self-concept does the guest have? What does he or she think that he or she is allowed to do or not to do?
Talking to the international students in Ljubljana, it appeared that as the guest is not part of the system, he or she often feels anonymous. Also, the guest is not able to take part in the social life in the same way that the members of the host society can. Furthermore, being a guest comes with an obligation to behave in a certain way and to live up to the expectations. As Dikeç, Clark and Barnett perceive, hospitality is mostly combined with the theory of “otherness” or “strangeness”. This means that host and guest may differ in terms of language, family or system of society. As the host is giving time and space, they try to turn this position of a stranger into a position of a friend (Dikeç 2009, p. 10f). Therefore, not only the host has to be open. But the guest has to be willing to share his or her way of life as well. However, the guest has no right to claim to be treated as a guest. Hospitality is voluntary and this is why it is always a gift which is given or received (Friese 2009, p. 58).
The students who are coming to Ljubljana to use the offer of international higher education feel like they are already privileged and that they have already received so much from this country. As a consequence, they are convinced that they do not deserve any special treatment beyond hospitality and that they shouldn’t complain. Although the situation concerning the language policy and with that the problems of attending classes can be challenging, the students made clear to me that it is not the fault of the teachers and that they do not want to blame any specific section or person.
“So, I was really disappointed, but that doesn’t mean that all the professors are like that. There are of course really supportive teachers and so on, but the general situation is just not that supportive.” (International Creole student)
Nevertheless, as stated previously, they do not complain. Instead, the students try to talk to professors and try to find solutions without anybody being blamed for these issues. The students think that they need to return the favour of hospitality and therefore they try to appreciate their stay and try to behave in the way that they think they should. They know that they are guests and that as such they are kind of expected to enjoy their stay and go back home after some time.
“I went to the semester office and I told him that I would like to change it [the courses] into something, whatever, just something where I can speak English.” (International Creole student)
As the students are in Ljubljana for studying, it is very important for them to attend courses which will help them in the future. As this problem is mostly language related, they try to find solutions for the problem. Even if the professor is simply summarising for 10 minutes in English the topic of a two-hour lesson, they have at least achieved something.
“I mean from some perspective I understand that it is important and completely different if people can speak in their mother tongue about certain topics.” (International Creole student)
If the students attend courses with a small amount of English, they think that it is enough to at least learn some new things. They know that it can be difficult to talk about a topic in a language that isn’t the mother tongue and they do not want to force other students to do so. They do not want to be a burden to their hosts. The international students do not think that it is a possibility for them to have such an impact on the university educational system, if they are only staying for one or two semesters. This role of a guest has an impact on various decisions as to how they want to behave during the stay.
What is the student expected to be (or not to be) as a guest?
An aspect, which is affecting the relation between the host and the guest, are expectations on both sides and how both sides fulfil those expectations. I will concentrate on the expectations the students as guests have and how those are considered and handled.
“When I applied they told me that the whole thing will be in English and I was also in contact with the secretary and so on […] and then on the first day it turned out that actually almost everything is in Slovene.” (International Creole student)
This quote shows one of the most important expectations of the students who come to Ljubljana and want to study here. The university tells them that everything will be in English but this is not always possible because of the language policy. Since the stay is part of an international program, the students are expecting the program to be interested in improving itself and to solve problems if they arise. Another expectation the students have, when they think about their first one or two weeks in the new city, is to get help with organising their daily life, as the city is in most cases completely new for them.
Where are the dormitories? Where can they do their shopping? How does the public transportation work? Is there a specific ticket for students? What can they spend their free time doing?
The students are thankful for the help they have received so far and do not want to appear ungrateful. Although they are frustrated because they are not able to do the courses they wanted to do, they do not want to complain. They get proactive and try to solve the problem by showing initiative. They talk to the professor, to find out if they can do courses which interest them in English or if there is another solution. Those who simply relied on the information they received from the International Office, had a nasty surprise, which often led to an outburst of emotions.
“Of course this language thing was really dramatic for me because it kind of destroyed all my dreams…” (International Creole student)
Although the students I talked to felt frustrated, anxious or angry in some situations, they did not go to those responsible because they think that they, as a guest, are not allowed to complain. Their status as “guests” subjects them to a certain anticipation of what kind of behaviour will be expected from them by the “hosts”.
Expressed and Unexpressed Expectations
If you have a look on the Erasmus website it is obvious that one important aspect of joining this program is to get to know a new country or even some cities of the bordering countries.
It is advertised as an adventure in a new country. The slogan “Yolo – You only Ljubljana once” is used on the website which is in general very lively. The appearance of the website is one reason why expectations are created. The students are coming to Ljubljana and expect an exciting time with new friends. But if the website did not look the way it does, then the incoming students would not have such great expectations.
One expectation I mentioned before is the receiving of help when they come to Ljubljana for the first time. They are probably only expecting some tips and tricks, but in this case, they get a whole brochure in which there is all the practical information they might need.
All these expectations have an impact on the student’s life in Ljubljana. Their reaction is based on their status as a guest when it comes to fulfilled or unfulfilled expectations.
How does the status of the students have an impact on their lifestyle?
The Student’s Status
The international students are in a particular stage of life. They are not (yet) part of the structured community in Ljubljana and are not part of the community they have just left behind anymore. Their status is “betwixt and between” as Turner describes. (Turner 1964)
To elaborate on this topic, Turner sees the “rites of passage” as a transition in three phases. The first one is the separation. It signifies the detachment from an earlier fixed position in a social structure. The second phase is liminality.
“During the intervening “liminal” period, the characteristics of the ritual subject (the ‘passenger’) are ambiguous; he passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state.” (Turner 1964, p. 47)
The third phase is characterized by reintegration in a relatively stable state and the person is expected to act in a certain way, according to his or her social position in a system.
What does the phase of liminality mean for the student? How does the student feel in the phase of liminality?
I argue that Turner’s model can be applied to the situation of international students. As the students have left their position in a stable and structured system at home, they cannot rely on this position anymore when going to another country. They are all on the same level, no matter which position they had in the previous system. This means insecurity for them. They are new in an unknown city and they are confronted with a different lifestyle. The international students need to know how this new structure works and which position they can occupy or not. They need to find out how the community in Ljubljana sees them. But it is also important to find out who they are in this new community. They are kind of anonymous until they find their position or at least until they find out where they belong to. As these students are in the city for a fixed period of time, they are welcomed in a specific way. The community wants to support the students and as they are only there for a certain time, they want them to have a good time in Ljubljana.
Nevertheless, those students find themselves in this stage of liminality, where they would rather accept inconvenience than draw attention to a problem. This behaviour cannot only be explained by the liminality but also by the role of a guest the students are in. Although they are individual students coming from all over Europe, they are not alone. There are more than 1000 Erasmus and Creole students in Ljubljana each semester. But as they are all on their own and living individual lives, they cannot create a stable social structure among themselves. I want to link this with another concept from Turner’s model: communitas.
Communitas, as Turner describes, are loose communities, where individual people with something in common get together and create a specific social bond.
“Communitas emerges where social structure is not.” (Turner 1969, p. 371)
As this building of communitas occurs at the edges of structure, it is not surprising that it is mostly found in the phase of liminality. The lack of structure is characterizing for communitas. It is a very loose bond in which people know each other, and find their position in a way, but they are not dependent on each other. Everyone can make his or her own decision. The international students as communitas constitute a specific part on the edge of the stabled and structured system of Ljubljana.
Why do they build communitas? What are the advantages of communitas in the phase of liminality?
Getting to know oneself is one reason to go abroad. Therefore, the people want to be on their own for some time and make their own experiences. Nevertheless, human beings are used to being part of a social structure and because of that, communitas are the best way to combine these two requirements.
“So I think, if there are people who are open minded, then you will meet a lot of people. And that is really interesting.” (International Creole student)
This picture shows the café “Ziferblat” which is one of the locations where international students such as Erasmus or Creole students meet in Ljubljana. This café is a little bit different. You do not pay per drink but per minute. But as you can take whatever you like, it is in fact really cheap to stay there for a longer time. Especially because there is a special offer for students.
Personally, I found “Ziferblat” very interesting. The kitchen is open for everyone and you just take whatever you want. You can make yourself a cup of tea or coffee and it feels like you are in your own kitchen or living room. I can imagine that this place is perfect for international students, because the city, the university and the lifestyle is completely new, but this place really feels like home. When entering the café, the first thing you see is the check in, where you can choose a clock as a part of the log in procedure. The furniture of the café is like a living room. There are sofas and armchairs. There are a lot of books and board games you can use. It was interesting to see how many things you can use there, for example, you can also play a guitar, if you want to. In the middle of this room, there is also a big table with chairs, on which you can work or play board games. It is a place where you can meet and spend time together with new people and old friends. And it is also a meeting place for Slovenians who want to spend time with international people. This place brings people together.
“Ziferblat” is also an important place when it comes to learning Slovene, as some international students come to Ljubljana with this intention. As it is written in the brochure they get at their arrival, there are intensive courses each semester. But the brochure does not say that the course is in fact too small and that is very difficult to attend it, as I was told by my interviewees. The international students find themselves in a situation in which they face two options. The first one is to just not learn Slovene. And the second one is to find an alternative. One of these alternatives is a language course which is held by volunteers in “Ziferblat”. This course takes place on a weekly basis and there are approximately ten to fifteen participants. As the group is so small, you can learn a lot.
“I am going there only for the Slovenian course because in the afternoon and in the evening I need to work. But I quite regret that I can’t be there more often. It is a really cool place.” (Erasmus intern)
This place makes it easy to meet new people and to get together in different groups. There is also a variety of events on offer for everybody to attend. Meeting new people is one of the biggest parts of being abroad. As the students are on their own and build those loose communities it is easy for them to get in touch with each other. They are all in the same situation. They form a mutual support group as all of them are – or have been – in roughly the same situation. They also feel responsible for the students who are coming in the next semesters. They want to solve the problems they are facing in order to make it easier for future international students.
Process of Development
The third phase of the rite of passage, according to Turner, is characterised by reintegration into a social structure. However, the person who underwent the rite of passage has changed significantly throughout the ritual. He or she enters the social world as a “new” person. Something similar takes place when students go abroad. When studying abroad, students do make several important developments. As my interviewees told me, not only were they becoming more self-confident and self-aware, but they also felt that they had improved their ability to reflect on their own behaviour.
Which personal developments do the students go through?
The students go through both, good and difficult times. As they are in this status of liminality and therefore experience insecurity and other emotions, it can be hard sometimes to cope with these situations.
The hospitality, which is part of the whole stay, has an effect on the life as an Erasmus-, or Creole-student, too. Without it, they would have acted differently in many situations and their whole stay could have been different.
Without this status of liminality and their role as a guest, the experiences of the students would also have been different. As they were on their own, even though they had created communitas, they had to solve their problems and manage their stay by themselves. The first weeks can be very hard, as everything is new, but going through this rough time can help them to find their position once they return home. This is not only a benefit for the time after the stay abroad but it also helps them to get to know themselves in a way that would not be possible if they would not have left their hometown to start this adventure abroad.
“Before Erasmus, I did not feel like a man. I knew that I had to go abroad to feel more grown up.” (Erasmus intern)
The whole process of getting out of the environment the students are used to, through the whole new situation and coming back home again is formative for the student’s life. As Turner describes, the state of liminality can change you in a way (Turner 1964). The students learn how to care for themselves in a new city. Also, everyday tasks like washing your clothes can be new at the beginning. But not only do these practical skills improve, they also enable the students to develop their problem-solving skills as they act in a certain way as a guest. As the quote above appropriately states, some students go abroad as kids and come back as young adults. For some students, Erasmus can be the beginning of a completely new and independent lifestyle.
Picture 1: Bulletin Board (Johanna Steindl)
Picture 2: Preseren Platz Ljubljana (Johanna Steindl)
Picture 3: Bookstore (Johanna Steindl)
Picture 4: Ziferblat (Jasmin Baumgartner)
Dikeç, Mustafa / Clark Nigel / Clive Barnett (2009) Extending Hospitality: Giving Space, Taking Time. In: Dikeç, Mustafa / Clark Nigel / Clive Barnett (Hrsg.), Extending Hospitality: Giving Space, Taking Time. Paragraph Special Issues 32 (1). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p 1-14.
Friese, Heidrun (2009), The Limits of Hospitality. In: Dikeç, Mustafa / Clark Nigel / Clive Barnett (Hrsg.), Extending Hospitality: Giving Space, Taking Time. Paragraph Special Issues 32 (1). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p. 51-68.
Simmel, Georg (1950), The sociology of Georg Simmel. Translated, edited and with an introduction by Kurt H. Wolff. New York: The free Press.
Simmel, Georg (1992 ), Exkurs über den Fremden. In: Rammstedt, Otthein (Hrsg), Soziologie. Untersuchung über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, p. 764-771.
Turner, Victor (1964), Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage. In: Helm June et.al. (Hrsg.), Proceedings of the 1964 annual Spring meeting of the American Ethnological Society. Seattle: American Ethnological Society, p. 46-55.
Turner, Victor (1969), The Ritual Process; Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine.
3841. Act on public Usage of Slovenian language (APUSL), Official Gazette of the Republic of Slovenia, no. 86/2004, page 10418. Online unter: http://www.arhiv.mk.gov.si/en/legislation_and_documents/ (letzter Zugriff: 25.3.2018)
Creole – Cultural Differences and Transnational Processes. Online unter: https://creole.univie.ac.at/?q=node/32 (letzter Zugriff: 04.04.2018)
Website Erasmus Ljubljana. Online unter: http://www.erasmusljubljana.si/ (letzter Zugriff: 12.07.18)
Website Erasmus Ljubljana, Crazy Erasmus Thursday. Online unter: http://www.erasmusljubljana.si/crazy-erasmus-thursday (letzter Zugriff: 25.07.18)
by Johanna Steindl