Study Abroad: What to expect

If you are reading this I am going to make the not so wild assumption that you are either considering a year of studying abroad or have in fact made the best decision ever and are preparing to jet off on what will be one of the greatest years of your life.

Yes, I know how cliché that must read but as someone who has recently returned from a year of studying at Fordham University in New York I do have some authority to make such bold statements.

There are so many ways that I have grown and changed positively in the last year. And you will too. If nothing else, you will become far more independent, and confident in your ability to survive on your own.  At first these changes may feel slightly forced upon you as you try to manage life in a new country. But trust me, diving in headfirst is the only way. Go up to those strangers in your class; make conversation with the person sitting beside you in assembly. I was lucky because an international orientation program is mandatory at Fordham University for all exchange students and I were thus kind-of forced to make friends my first few days. Most colleges will offer similar programs, and if you do find yourself in a room filled with people from all over the globe playing your tenth ‘ice-breaker’ of the day just remember that everyone else feels just as nervous and awkward as you, so simply go for it.

Making new friends can be a daunting thing – especially if you’re like me and have had pretty much the same social circle for about 10 years. But to be honest, the friends that I made on my year of studying abroad are ones that I will have for life. These friends became like family for me, and I am sure they will for you too. Plus the perks of having international best friends are great – free accommodation in multiple countries! Your new friends will open your eyes to cultures you probably knew very little about before, and you will do the same for them, (the amount of people that are astonished that Irish is a language or that leprechauns aren’t real will amaze you!)

However, once you start absolutely loving your new life, developing genuine friendships and finally start to feel more and more accustomed to your new home you may be hit by what my friends and I called the ‘October Wall’. Most of my friends were also international and so we experienced all that comes with studying abroad together, both the highs and the lows. I don’t say this to frighten you, merely to assure you that any homesickness is completely normal. There was one week in October that all of us felt particularly homesick. It was just as the initial excitement of the new semester wore off, the colder weather began, assignments started piling up and Thanksgiving Break was approaching. As most of us came from Europe we couldn’t head home for the long weekend like most of our American peers. We also obviously had never celebrated Thanksgiving before and so didn’t feel the excitement that helped our American classmates get through those cold, wet days spent in the library. I was lucky enough to have family in America, who I could spend the holiday with. Without them and that time to recharge, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the rest of the semester so much. Therefore I would highly recommend, if you have friends or family living in the country of your program to try and meet up with them around the October/November period. If this isn’t possible for you, then I would suggest that you ask anyone who would be willing or able to visit you to do so around this time. Trust me, Skype and FaceTime are great but sometimes you just need to hug someone from home, it will definitely ease any homesickness you are feeling and give you that boost to get through until Christmas!

In most cases you will also have to make some academic adjustments. Adapting to the American school system honestly took a few weeks. As with many other things, though, a lot of people will be in the same boat as you, and in most cases lecturers (or professors as the Americans insisted on being called) are understanding and will be as helpful as possible.

Spelling is one big thing that I didn’t even think about until I got my first essay back – so learn from my mistakes and set the language preferences on your computer to American English. Seriously.

My final piece of advice is to enjoy every minute of your year, because it genuinely flies by. Try not to spend too much time wishing you were at home, enjoy where you are, embrace any homesickness but don’t let it take away from the incredible opportunity you have! Try to travel as much as you can. If you’re in Europe go to different countries, see places that are off the beaten ‘tourist’ path. Similarly, if you are in America, make the effort to go to cities that you might not visit in the future, the different cultures in each State will surprise you! Join as many societies as you can, meet people with similar interests to you that come from completely different backgrounds, this is especially important if your classes are on the larger size as it can be more difficult to get to know people in big classes. Make sure to document it all. Take pictures, write down how you are feeling; these memories will become precious to you when you do finally get home.

Not many people are lucky enough to get the opportunity to do what you are doing. Make the most of it. Earn my jealousy and that of every other student who has been able to study abroad in the past.