Study abroad season is back. Following the information session this month, dreams of doing tutorial readings while tanning, eating your weight in gelato and whiling away the hours in street cafés are in the air. But then reality hits – what about your friends? You’ve only just completed first year after all – do you want to be leaving again so soon? And why did no-one mention that you needed a 13.5 rather than a 7? And how are you going to pay for all this ice-cream?
Deciding to study abroad is not an easy decision – in fact it’s really quite complex. What is particularly difficult is trying to imagine what it will actually be like if/ when you get there. So, as a third year (non-language student) currently studying abroad in Europe, I’ve tried to make an (albeit far from comprehensive) list of myths and realities about studying abroad. Here’s some of what you need to know…
Myth: The foreign university application process is impossible.
Reality: Once you’ve got through the St Andrews application process, many schemes require you to apply again to the university you want to attend. This can be particularly tricky, long-winded and admin may just become the bane of your existence. BUT… you managed to apply to St Andrews just fine so you’ll manage to apply to this. It may be boring but all the emails and back and forth will pay off in the end.
Tip: Ask for help – use the Study Abroad office, that’s what they’re there for!
Reality: This really is dependent on where you are going – but, yes, culture shock is to be expected. For me, it was small things – like why are the bathroom taps only cold water? And why is everyone so blunt? And the bigger things such as the driving on the opposite side of the road – I am still totally dangerous while crossing the street. Everyone says the biggest culture shock however is the return home; the things you thought were weird at first will have become the norm. Culture shock can be great as it allows you to question your own culture and get a new perspective – embrace it.
Tip: Stick it out – don’t panic at the first signs of something different.
Reality: A new system is hard – after just getting used to the lecture/tutorial model and MMS, Moodle and iSaint etc, you have to start all over again. It does take a bit of time to get used to but it is definitely possible – just persevere. As for the courses, it’s always a worry that you’ll struggle and not perform as well as you might have if you had stayed at St Andrews. This is definitely a con of new courses, however studying abroad gives you an opportunity to take classes you couldn’t at St Andrews and expand your academic horizons. Often foreign universities have different specialities and this can be really interesting.
Tip: Ask for help with the new system – people are always willing to explain how to do things and where to find things. As for new courses, if you are worried you might struggle you can always talk to your professor who will be more than willing to help. And talk to your fellow classmates – a ‘study buddy’ in class is a valuable thing to have.
Reality: This is true to some extent – especially at the beginning. There will be a lot of “You’re English? Do you know the Queen?” or “You’re late – I thought Germans were supposed to be punctual?” It’s important not to take any of this the wrong way and realise that most people only want to share what they’ve heard about your country. For the most part, it’s just small-talk and soon enough will be forgotten.
Tip: Use it as a chance to share your culture with others and find out about theirs too. Learning about different people and their countries is no bad thing and the more you know, the less likely you are to stereotype yourself. Also, some stereotypes can be amusing and have some essence of truth – like the British need to over-apologise – so be open-minded and, if that fails, laugh it off and talk about the weather!
Reality: Again, this depends from place to place. Of course it is easier if you are studying abroad in a native English speaking country. As a non-language student in a country with English as its second language there are difficulties – train stations can be a nightmare and, although the class may be in English, the chatting before and after may not be. Be honest and admit if you don’t understand. “Sorry, I’m English” has become somewhat of a catchphrase for me this year. People will be more likely to make an effort to speak to you in English if they know you’re struggling. But, this a case of you making an effort as well – at least try and learn the basics of the country’s language if you are a non-language student abroad.
Tip: Learning “please” and “thank you” will get you a long way.
Reality: Yes – you will be homesick at first but that should pass in time. Same goes for loneliness – the first few days are the hardest, but settling into a routine helps enormously. To combat homesickness, take lots of pictures of home and make use of social media (especially Skype). Make sure to keep in touch but, on the other hand, making new friends does not mean you’re losing the old ones. Your friends and St Andrews will be there when you get back, so make sure you enjoy your new experience.
Tip: Join everything – new clubs means new friends: FACT. The International Student Society at your new university will be a blessing – join and meet new people who are in similar situations to you, bond and the next thing you know you’ll be the best of friends and your ideal vacation wish list will look a little more achievable.
Reality: Everyone’s scared – some people are just better at hiding it.
Tip: Be honest. Say you’re nervous; people will be glad someone has been brave enough to voice what they’re thinking and it could help you make some new friends.
My advice – take the plunge. Studying abroad gives you new friends, a new home, new experiences and new knowledge. Soon the difficulties will be a distant memory and you won’t ever want to leave.