Those Who Wander Lost is a blog-site dedicated to the Class of 2013 but with enough room for guest contributors to share their pearls of wisdom, advice, rants, worries, and stories about college life and beyond. Posted here with permission by the author, the every lovely Jay — who is a marvelous writer and wordsmith and has a lot of perspective on study abroad ;U I personally think this will be an enlightening post for many of my readers who happen to be from the US on how folks across the pond feel about us (Hahaha look at that bad pun)
Study abroad is a really big step; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The idea of going to another country, away from friends and family, was frankly terrifying to me, to such an extent that I kinda chickened out and convinced my friend to do it with me. And we only went from one English speaking country to another: going to a country where you’ll be studying in the native language has its own set of issues and difficulties you’ll need to keep in mind. If you’re a naturally courageous person who loves exploring, then you’re likely to step off the plane full of excitement about the country and the institution you’ve chosen, and you’ll be raring to go. People like this should definitely go for study abroad.
If you’re more like me, and love the idea but being 3000 miles away from your usual support systems scares you, I’d honestly still recommend going. It might be worth looking into support systems on campus before you get there- your mental health should always be an important consideration while studying- but don’t let fear keep you from what could be an amazing experience.
As far as support systems go abroad, the college that I attended had decent healthcare which included mental health and access to counsellors. The nurses were occasionally a little too quick to offer meds for things- Vicodin for wisdom teeth issues made spring break very interesting- but on the whole they did very well. You should look into this at your own institution and take advantage of it if and when you need to, as well as looking into the support available for the more academic side of things.
Building up your own support systems is also a good idea while you’re there, and will make the experience more fun. Try joining a sports club, or societies that focus on things you’re interested in. It’s way easier to make friends this way. Also, keep in mind that there are probably plenty of other study abroad students on campus. You’d be surprised how well homesickness and just being the foreign kid can function as common interests when you need someone to talk to.
No educational system is alike when it comes to study abroad, so keep in mind that even if you’re studying a subject like Literature (like me) where it’s seems like it’s all really books and essays on books and how hard can that be really, there will be changes to the system from marking down to essay structure that you’ll have to get used to. Trying to work out how GPA corresponded to degree classification took me a while, because when you get to university level in Britain you don’t get letter grades on essays anymore.
I was also thoroughly stumped by the fact that you had to come up with your own essay titles for your modules, where at home we received a list of essay questions in the run up to deadlines and we just had to pick one. Unfortunately, once you get used to the freedom of picking your own essay topics, it’s just as hard to revert back to the old system.
Anyway, that’s the fiddly side of the education element. What you really want to focus on is the fact that studying abroad can open up a whole area of study that you didn’t have as much access to at home, even if it’s just that the institution offers a different range of modules from your home university or college. Even something like studying American Lit while actually in the US made a huge amount of difference for me (though studying British Lit as the only Brit in the class was a little bizarre).
It’s also worth keeping in mind that if you study abroad as an extra year added onto your degree- in Britain, a degree is 3 years, but can go to 4 for study abroad- the modules you study while you’re there don’t all have to correspond to your degree. Essentially, you can take the opportunity to study whatever the hell you want while you’re there. Personally, I took Russian, which was seriously difficult but a lot of fun, as well as a few creative writing classes.
An obvious point now, but one that I feel I should point out: when studying abroad, people will likely feel it necessary to comment on your accent. It probably didn’t help that I studied in Massachusetts just in time for Sherlock as a fandom phenomenon to really kick in. I was stopped in lunch queues by girls who told me they loved my accent because they loved Sherlock. I had people listening in on conversations with my friend because of our accents. One of the chefs in the canteen made me repeat my order several times because he couldn’t get over my pronunciation of “tomato”.
I heard several variations on the theme of “I have a friend in London, maybe you know him”. You are also pretty much guaranteed to hear all the jokes people can recall about your home country, from the legitimately funny to the downright racist, as well as all the daft questions under the sun:
“Is it true you all have to drink tea by law?”
“Why do you still have a queen? Do you know the queen?”
“Why does everyone have such bad teeth?”
You get the idea. Now this might be more of a Brit going to the US thing, but it’s still worth keeping in mind. 80% of the time people are trying to be genuinely friendly and just going about it in a strange, slightly condescending manner, and it’s worth giving these people the benefit of the doubt, at least the first time. For the other 20%, and the people who don’t stop trying to imitate you after you’ve asked them to 3 times, I find a sharp thwap upside the head with a dinner menu works wonders.
Given what I’ve said so far, complaining as I have been (something Brits are also very good at apparently), I’ve probably given you the impression that I didn’t like studying abroad. The thing is, for all the silly questions and the different education systems and the overwhelming realisation that hits you every so often that you’re thousands of miles away from home, studying abroad is still an amazing experience.
Meeting new people, going somewhere you’ve never been before, and possibly learning a bit more independence than you might have at home, that’s really indispensable. Make the absolute most of it that you can, and if you get the chance, always take the opportunity to travel. It does sound that old shtick that the university gives when they’re trying to convince people to study abroad, but it really is true.
P.S. Keep your travel documents somewhere safe and do not forget them. Customs is not your friend.