Having almost finished my computer sciences, around midyear 2014, I decided to apply for an Erasmus grant, as I thought that it would enable me to have an experience of a lifetime, a much needed work break and it would prove as a valid research ground for a game about learning a foreign language, to be published this year at Mandarina Games. I decided to come to Calabria as I learned that Unical was one of the leading universities on the field of Artificial Intelligence, one of my fields of interest, so it did not take me much time to go for it.
The day I first arrived at Castiglione Cosentino my impression was that I had traveled back in time. Miles away from Rome, the area seemed quite rural and the people very laid back. Standing outside the station I could not see the guys from ESN (Erasmus Student Network) who supposedly were picking me up. After half an hour trying to contact them without success I decided to take a local cab.
The cab driver did not speak any english at all, and at that time I only knew a couple of phrases in italian, so he handed me his mobile and from that point we understood each other through her daughter, who was on the phone acting as the translator. That was definitely a sign of things to come, for good and bad, of a region of people that are friendly and creative.
The things I liked the most about Italy, Calabria and Unical were how friendly and open was everyone; the beautiful landscapes of San Nicola d’Arcella, the amalfitan coastline and Sicily; and the great minds behind the artificial intelligence department which made of my academic experience a very enjoyable one. I had the chance of meeting very interesting people, and not only italian, but also fellow spaniards, polish, turkish, philippins, … with whom I will try to keep in contact from now on.
We visited several locations in Calabria, such as Diamante (where I swimmed to Cirella island with a couple friends and convinced a boat to take us on our way back), San Nicola Arcella (best beach I have ever seen), Cosenza, and other small towns. We went even beyond the region of Calabria and did a road trip to Sicily, and another one to the majestic amalfitan coastline and chaotic Naples. Finally, to top it up, we enjoyed the carnival at Putignano, in Puglia, considered to be one of the oldest in the world with over 600 years of tradition.
Last but not least, my academic experience was one of the best I ever had, specially regarding the Intelligent Systems subject, which I studied along Artificial Intelligence during my stay. Francesco Calimeri, our professor, encouraged us to be proactive, to practice our presentation skills and gave us advice on several areas around his professional experience which I found very relevant according to mine. The lectures were quite hands-on and the competition, which my team won, was a stressful but really enjoyable event and a great learning experience.
However, there were also a few things that could be improved related to behaviours of certain individuals which I found difficult to understand. For instance, the ESN local members forgetting about mine and others arrival, or the burochratic apathy of some university officials responsible of incoming students applications and assigning a flat to them.
So, the question that may come into the reader’s mind is, why would I recommend UNICAL for studying Artificial Intelligence / Intelligence Systems? Despite the burocracy and other difficulties one may find in its journey, the local Artificial Intelligence research and lecturing staff are truly first class, recognized by their published work worldwide and projects with some of the other best universities in the field. Learning by doing is a great philosophy and it is one they really embrace, upon solid theoretical foundations which are laid first in advance in an inquisitive fashion, thus remaining embedded in one’s core thinking processes.
I would like to conclude this article writing down the three main takeaways I got during my time at Calabria:
1. From a personal perspective, it is wise not to go with first impressions and let people show their true self. This understanding, specially towards the end of my stay there, has enabled me to know some of the most interesting and caring people I have ever known. Real people are rough on the edges sometimes, they may have very visible defects, but what they can offer you compensates this a million times.
2. From a professional perspective, I understood that one does feel best not only when doing something at which one is good, but when a job resonates with who you are in several of its dimensions. In that sense now I am looking for projects where I can add real value in an industry I care about, which for me would mean working in analytics or project management related roles in the videogames or e-commerce sectors.
3. From a temporal perspective, I felt that my erasmus stay came a bit late and for this reason that my experience was probably very different from that of most erasmus students. And I do not mean it specifically because of the age gap, but due to what I have lived during those years since I came fresh out of university in 2010. Years that I spent working abroad, mainly in the United Kingdom, years during when I started three companies and sold one, years when I learned more about myself than before and thus I am very clear about where my principles stand and what do I expect from life.
Before deciding on taking such a life course I set up a plan with three clear objectives I wanted to accomplish:
1. To learn new and transferable skills in Artificial Intelligence, like the declarative language DLV and other advanced techniques which may enhance my existing skills. I am very happy about how this one developed and I am confident of having achieved it.
2. To travel a lot, to have a break from my previous work period and think about life, meet new people and enjoy my time there. Regarding this goal I am happy about the amount I travelled and the excellent people I met.
3. To gather ideas from my own life experience in order to develop a game to learn languages, which I would like to publish with Mandarina Games before summer to be ready for the new school year.
Summing up, I really enjoyed my time there. I achieved my goals, I built awesome memories and met excellent people. And that is all that really matters.