8 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Studying Abroad

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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The No-Bullsh*t Guide to Saving Money to Travel for Young Adults

Gather round kids, and welcome to the post that you’ll find on every travel blog!

But no, seriously. You know what I hate about these kinds of posts? They are directed at adults who have their own income and are living a lifestyle that is so far removed from the typical ‘student life’ that most advice is untransferable. These posts preach guidance such as finding a flat-mate and sacrificing the weekly nail appointment, when in reality, what young adult has enough money to fund living in a private flat in the first place, and what young adult has an extra $50 up their sleeve a week to splurge on their mani-pedi?

What’s missing from every online guide I have read is an orientation towards people my own age and walk of life.

I recently discussed on my post – Why I Hate the Word Wanderlust – how I believe that although saving to finance a trip can be “soul-crushing and demands sacrifice”, it is not impossible. I am not blind to the reality that factors such as privilege, opportunity and circumstance play a vast role in the success of this, but for the average university student who has a certain degree of flexibility and control over their time, is in a position where they are fortunate enough to put some money aside – and additionally, can prioritise this – I think that with a little self-discipline, travel isn’t as far out of reach as previously assumed.

So, sit back, relax and pull up your budget spreadsheets; you’re in for a wild ride 😎

Sharing is Caring

So I probably shouldn’t be encouraging this… and I apologise sincerely to network providers worldwide… but there’s a cheaper way to still access all your favourite tv shows.

I love Netflix. I love that I can watch my favourite shows (*ahem* Rick and Morty), and I love that I can watch them whenever the hell I want to. But you know what else I love? Leeching off my boyfriend’s account.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m that person.

Netflix can cost up to $15.99USD a month, which – while it doesn’t seem like a huge expense – can add up to nearly $200.00USD per year. If you can’t imagine curling into bed at night without seeing that iconic red logo materialise upon your laptop screen, search for a friend who is also paying for an account and inquire whether they would be happy to consider a cheaper alternative. Depending on your plan, you can access the same account on more than one device – and create individual personas – which is perfect for going halves and sharing.

Better still, stream straight from the web. Now, I’m not telling you to stream illegally… but I’m not not telling you to stream illegally. Wink wink nudge nudge.

Work, Work, Work, Work, Work…

Okay, so I can’t stand that song. But the most obvious way to make some extra dollar bills is to – yep, you guessed it – work.

When I was saving up to travel to Southeast Asia, I worked five part-time jobs on top of full-time university. As I wrote in a previous blog post, it was “social suicide – and admittedly not the best for my mental health – but it got me those plane tickets.” I know that working five part-time jobs is a little (okay, a lot) excessive, but I managed to earn $5000NZD in less than six-months without missing a single lecture.

If you’re studying in New Zealand, I highly recommend you sign up Student Job Search. This website was a life-saver for me when it came to finding part-time or casual work in the short term. Most of the listings started immediately and were updated daily, so I would log in every morning to find another selection of jobs up for grabs.

The beauty with finding employment is that it adds experience to your CV. That way, if you are looking for paid work overseas, you have the number one thing employees look for up your sleeve.

Cut the Coffee

Oh God, not the coffee!

If you’re anything like me, then you rely on your daily cup of joe to, y’know, function. Coffee is something of a necessity for university students, and don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you go cold turkey. Rather, I’m suggesting you make your own coffee at home and then take it on your whereabouts in a reusable cup for a fraction of the price rather than buy it at a café.

I am totally guilty of this. When my motivation is running low, sometime it is the promise of a delicious, steaming flat white from my favourite café that gets me out of bed in the morning. But the price difference from buying it compared to making it is ridiculous. Here’s the ridiculousness in numbers: if you are spending $3.5USD on a cup of coffee (as is the average cost in New Zealand) 5 days a week, then in 6 months, that would be saving of $455USD. $455US?! You could buy 20 nights in a standard hostel with that!

Embrace Your Inner Jaime Oliver

Whilst we’re on the topic, let’s address the elephant in the room: food.

When we make the transition from our parent’s home to a flat or other independent living situation, the freedom to make our own lifestyle choices can be almost too good to be true. If we have a few extra dollars on the side, it is tremendously tempting to forgo making a good, hearty meal from scratch and just ordering take out. This might especially be the case if we arrive home late after a long day of study, work or other commitments, and are too exhausted to attack the kitchen.

I’m not going to bore you with the maths here, but I dare say it is rather self-explanatory. As is the case with the coffee, dining out is decidedly expensive, and there is no reason why you can’t make food that tastes as good – if not better – at home.

Student Recipes is a fantastic online resource for finding delicious, budget-friendly dishes to whip up in a flash. I also recommend doing some good old fashioned food prep so that if you do find yourself getting in the door at some ungodly hour, the pizza delivery service won’t be as tempting. As long as you stick to your guns and keep takeout for special occasions (if at all), you’ll find your bank account looking more and more attractive in no time.

Happy Birthday!

If your family is keen on gift-giving at those special times of the year, don’t be afraid to ask for cold hard cash instead of a present. It may sound greedy – and even I am reluctant to employ this – but people will be delighted to know that their contribution is going to a worthy cause.

Whenever I receive money on my birthday, I always make it a priority to write to the giver and not only thank them for their kindness, but also tell them specifically what I will be putting it towards. That way, you are not only giving them a sense of purpose with their charity, but also holding yourself accountable for what you spend it on. The last thing you want to do is admit to your grandparents that you spent the money they gave you for that once-in-a-lifetime trip on three weeks worth of McDonalds.

Pop Some Tags

#throwback to 2012 and familiarise yourself with Macklemore’s Thrift Shop. It was my jam back then, I can still proudly rap along to all the words now.

The point I’m trying to make here is that shopping secondhand can be a game-changer when it comes to budgeting. This doesn’t just stop at clothing, either; it extends to textbooks (do you know how much that shit costs?!), electronics, furniture… you name it. Why would you spend retail price when you can score the same product for half of that?

Shopping secondhand doesn’t mean you have to lurk in those grotty charity shops that smell of mothballs and wet basements (you know what I’m talking about). Companies such as Amazon give you the option to buy discounted products that are still in great quality.

Once Upon a Time…

If you’re a total book worm (like me), then you should invest in a Kindle.

Did you know that the average hard-copy book (in New Zealand, at least) costs around $20USd?! An eBook costs half of that. Plus, you won’t have to lug around thick slabs of paper which sit in the corner and gather dust once you’ve finished it.

Granted, buying a Kindle device costs a wee bit, but the savings you will make from not buying hard-copy books in the long-run are exponentially worthwhile. Besides, there are certainly ways to score a discounted Kindle… what was that last point I discussed, again? 🤔

Lace Up Your Runners

Relax; I’m not about to suggest you start running. I’m not that evil. But what I am suggesting is that – if you own a car – you might want to consider alternative options.

Petrol is insanely pricey – not to mention the maintenance and service cars require on a regular basis. Then you have to pay for parking – and believe me, you haven’t experienced stress until you’re late to a lecture and can’t find a car park.

There are several methods of transport available to most city-slickers. Think walking, biking, car-pooling or catching public transport… at the extreme end of the scale, you might even consider selling your car. Imagine the budget-boost that would give you!

For example, instead of catching a taxi to town one Saturday night, consult the local bus timetable. To get to and from the centre of town, it costs me $30USD to employ the services of a private taxi but only $2USD to enjoy the company of strangers on a bus. It’s a no-brainer, really.

I understand that the ability to trade in the luxury of your car is heavily situation-dependent. If you live somewhere that has you rugging up in about five layers of clothing before you leave the house, you might want to think twice about walking. Likewise, sacrificing hours of your precious time to travel on foot might not be the best use of your time. But – as is the case with everything – it’s the little things that count.

Put Down That Wine Glass

Yeah… I’m really not going to be popular after this blog post.

I didn’t say saving is soul-crushing for nothing. For us young ‘uns, drinking is more often than not synonymous with getting wasted. I say this because in New Zealand, we have a really dangerous culture of binge-drinking, and in order to achieve this level of intoxication, it takes more than a can or two of beer.

The consequence of heavy drinking – aside from the detrimental health issues – is the effect on our wallets. Alcohol ain’t cheap, people!

The good news (depending on your perspective) is that there is an easy way to regulate your spending without going cold turkey. I don’t want to endorse unhealthy habits here, but if you insist on those big nights out, invest in pre-drinking rather than hitting up the pub. A glass of wine from the bar will cost nearly two thirds the price of a bottle purchased from the supermarket and enjoyed with your friends before venturing out into town. And don’t even get me started on the price of cocktails!

Surf Couches

If you haven’t already, open another tab, type in www.courchsurfing.com and sign up for an account now.

One of the most hideous expenses of travel – perhaps aside from those dang plane tickets – is accommodation. For many people, hotels are simply not an option, and even the going rates of some hostels make me cringe.

Couchsurfing is revolutionising budget travel for people of all walks of life. The online community connects hosts from every country on earth with adventurous and open-minded travellers. As written on their website: “travel like a local, stay in someone’s home and experience the world in a way money can’t buy”.

The key word here is money; the beauty of Couchsurfing is that you are not charged a single cent to stay in someone’s house. It’s always polite to thank your hosts in some way, but all we’re talking here is a cooked meal or shouting them a drink. Some token of gratitude. Furthermore, it’s a brilliant means to meet like-minded people and expose yourself to a different culture in a way that the four walls of a hotel suite cannot.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like: the No-Bullsh*t Guide to Surviving a 12-Hour Flight ✈

All photos sourced form Unsplash

 

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