I realise that I’m probably not the archetypal exchange student. I largely went on exchange to escape a love-hate relationship with my home country, and I had no intentions of returning afterwards. Homesickness simply was not an issue for me, and the decision to study abroad in the first place was not complicated by attachment to my old social life.
Nevertheless, the fact that my exchange did not come with a sacrifice did not mean that it was all smooth sailing from the moment I stepped on that plane.
I went to the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, and – at risk of sounding like a walking cliché – it was one of the best experiences of my life. Certainly, it was the peak of my undergraduate degree. Aside from all the other reasons studying abroad is fantastic, it provided me with an opportunity to reevaluate the direction I am heading, and to work out which things I really want to pursue after university. There’s nothing like being plucked out of the comfort and familiarity of home routine to question whether those same comforts and familiarities are really all that.
Yet, as I said, there still exist a number of key things I wish I had known before going on exchange. If you’re in the position I was six months ago – tickets bought, suitcase packed – then maybe you too can benefit from a little hindsight.
The Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol
You don’t have to do the stereotypical ‘exchange’ thing
If that doesn’t make sense, allow me to rephrase.
You don’t have to make your study abroad experience a reflection of the advertised stories you hear from returned students. Before going on exchange, my impression was that studying abroad was basically one to two semesters where you made a ton of new friends, went out partying every night, and every Friday, flew to a new destination for a weekend break.
And hey – maybe this is your cup of tea. I’m not here to tell you how you should and shouldn’t spend those months. But what I am here to do is to reassure you that there is no one template to the exchange experience. Me, personally? I probably made about seven or eight close friends. I didn’t go out partying once, and my traveling was saved for before and after the semester. And you know what? I am perfectly happy with that. I don’t see my experience as any less of a success purely because I was more of a homebody and preferred to get a leisurely feel for the city as a local rather than a visitor. I wanted to walk away regarding Bristol as a home rather than a holiday destination – and I achieved just that.
You’ll mostly meet international students
This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you want to get out of your exchange, but from my experience, I really struggled to meet locals.
The locals I did meet were the ones I was flatting with – and even then, I was also flatting with other internationals. I soon discovered that the sorts of social events I participated in, and the sorts of people who made use of social apps, were far more likely to be internationals than locals (or even just other people from the United Kingdom).
Don’t get me wrong; I love meeting people from all around the globe. One of the closest friends I made was a gorgeous ray of sunshine from Germany. But… it’s kind of like when you go on holiday and only end up mingling with the tourists.
Your lecturers don’t give a damn that you’re an exchange student
When classes began, I wasn’t expecting special treatment. But as I had never studied at the University of Bristol before – let alone in the tertiary system of the United Kingdom – I was arguably disadvantaged academically. There were a lot of disparities between the system there and the system back in New Zealand, and some naïve and idealistic part of me had anticipated at least a briefing from my lecturers beforehand.
It didn’t make matters easier that I was studying third-year papers. At least if you are studying with first-years, the lecturers treat you as though you’ve just come out of high school and are as oblivious to the university system as the next eighteen year old. But I was thrown in (well, opted for) the deep end, and right from the word go, I felt like I was wading against a downhill current.
The solution to this isn’t to follow my lead and sit at the back of the class scratching your head. Rather, the solution is to introduce yourself to your lecturers on day one, explain that you are an exchange student and that the system is unfamiliar to you, and tell them that you might need a little extra direction throughout the semester. Your lecturers won’t think you any less capable; instead, they will likely commend you on your initiative and go out of their way to help you the best that they can.
Do not take travel for granted
One of the perks of studying abroad is not just the opportunity to experience student life in a different culture, but also to travel. Other Kiwis can sympathise with me when I grumble about New Zealand’s isolation, and how expensive it is to fly to even the closest country. Because of this, many students are motivated to study abroad because of the relative ease in which they can see more of the world.
The first thing I did when I arrived in Bristol was to purchase £10 return tickets to Germany. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how cheap it was to roam Europe when you have second-largest international airport practically on your doorstep.
Whilst I didn’t venture out of the United Kingdom during my exchange (those Germany tickets ultimately went to waste), I did spend a whopping four months traveling before the semester began. Make the most of gaps between semesters, as it is highly likely the school year between your home university and overseas university will not align.
Going on exchange during the last semester of your degree is not the smartest idea
During the organisation process for my exchange, my university warned me on multiple occasions that I was risking completing my degree on time by studying abroad during my last semester. I, of course, turned a blind eye to their advice. But it only took a few days of studying abroad to fully realise the gamble I had made.
Unlike in New Zealand, your papers (or units, as they are called) in Bristol are not finalised until after you arrive for the semester. This generally isn’t a problem unless you are counting on specific papers to meet the requirements of your major and minor so that you can pass your degree in a couple of months’ time. Unfortunately, I happened to be in that exact situation, and all chaos broke lose when I arrived only to discover that one of those mandatory papers I had elected was cancelled. Fortunately, I was able to convince my home university to let me take another one that didn’t exactly align with the requirements of my original major, meaning that I wouldn’t have to travel all the way back to New Zealand just to take one paper to pass my degree.
This isn’t a position you want to be in. Your study abroad experience shouldn’t be inhibited by technicalities, and you can avoid this by planning your exchange for somewhere in the middle of your degree.
You actually have to make an effort to make friends
This kind of ties into the point I made earlier about how you don’t have to do the stereotypical ‘exchange’ thing. Although returned students make it seem as though they had new friends coming out of their ears, achieving this isn’t a passive process.
It’s super easy to meet people; just turn up to a social event and say hello. But progressing from that initial introduction stage to actually seeing someone on a regular basis and developing some kind of friendship is a very different thing. As soon as I realised this, I stopped going to bigger social events and began focusing on one on one interactions where the chance of getting to know someone was better.
This is where social apps are a huge helping hand. I highly recommend you download Bumble, which has a ‘BFF’ setting which lets you match with individuals of the same gender with the intentions of making friends. Couchsurfing – which I have raved about countless times in the past – is also great for finding both locals and travellers (contrary to what most people believe, you don’t actually have to couch surf to use Couchsurfing). A recent discovery of mine is Meet Up, which lets you join different groups where you can connect and meet people who share common interests. It’s a bit like the clubs and societies part of the university experience without the university experience. At one stage, I even created a Tinder account, set my settings to girls, and wrote a straight up bio saying, “Hi, I’m here to abuse Tinder and make actual friends.” To much surprise, this produced great success.
Academia is important – but not in the way you think
I’m not an expert on the way other universities function, but as was the case with my experience – and similarly with other exchange students I have talked to worldwide – you do not receive a grade for your work. Rather, you receive either a pass or fail, rendering both excellent and standard work to the same level of recognition. It’s both a blessing and a curse.
The implication of this is that many students adopt a certain “f*ck it” attitude towards their studies during exchange. After all, what’s the point in cramming for hours and pulling all-nighters when there’s no actual payoff? I don’t deny the logic behind this approach, but I do want to raise another point.
Study abroad is a brilliant chance to take papers that you wouldn’t have the opportunity to otherwise. At Bristol, I enrolled in papers that were absent from the curriculum back home; ones that ended up fostering a passion and interest that I continued studying in my own time even after the exams were done and dusted. An example is a paper I took called Gender and Migration; I have published an abridged version of my final essay about refugees on the Ginger Passports, which you can read here.
Independence doesn’t always mean control
Whilst going on exchange will give you newfound independence, you won’t have complete control over everything. This is something I personally struggled with, as I am someone who loathes the feeling of powerlessness.
I was just about to write a list of the things you likely won’t be able to control, when it occurred to me that there is only one thing you really do have control over: you. So many things could happen whilst studying abroad; your flatmates might be antisocial or disrespectful, you might strike awful weather, you might fall incredibly ill, or there might even occur a political event that tunnels its way into your everyday life. Don’t get me wrong – these things suck. But one thing your exchange will teach you is to roll with the punches and make the most out of shitty situations. That’s not something you should mindlessly shrug off.
And now for the good stuff…
After rambling on and on about the things that I wish I had known before embarking on my exchange, I’m worried I’ve put some people off the remarkable adventure that is studying abroad. So to clear the air, here are the positive outcomes that nonetheless came out of the above…
- I made peace with the fact that I am never going to be an extrovert who socialises over ten shots of Jägermeister. It may sound trivial, but accepting that took a weight off my shoulders and made me feel a hell of a lot more comfortable and fulfilled with a more relaxed lifestyle.
- I met people from all over the world. It may not have felt like an asset at the time when I was trying to fully immerse myself in British culture, but now that I have invitations from all around the globe… I think it’s fair to say that it is by far one of the biggest advantages of going on exchange.
- I was academically challenged. Looking back, I should have been far more proactive in reaching out to my lecturers when I was confused, but something that did come out of that was that I learnt to be more independent with my studies.
- I spent four insane months traveling around Spain, France and Egypt before settling in England. These weren’t just high intensity one-day-in-each-city trips either; with the exception of perhaps Egypt (where I was based in Cairo for the whole time), I left each country feeling that I had an intimate understanding of it.
- I was pushed out of my comfort zone when making friends. Back in New Zealand, the only new friends I made were ones I was introduced to when visiting old friends, so the art of meeting people was not one I had refined. When I arrived in Bristol, the thought of meeting someone in a coffee shop or art gallery for the first time made me positively squirm. But by the time my three months were up, I found myself looking forward to such encounters.
- I discovered a new academic passion, which – as I have already said – I have written about on the blog.
Studying abroad can offer some of the biggest highs and some of the biggest lows. It may not be for everyone, but for those who are prepared to take the risk, the payoff is immense.
So… where do you want to go?
Photographs courtesy of Unsplash
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