My studying abroad experience

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It seems to be an opportunity too good to miss, doesn’t it? You’re taking the plunge, going outside your comfort zone, forming hundreds of new relationships, and truly finding yourself in a world of independence and responsibility. For the very first time, you have the opportunity to fully immerse yourself in a whole new culture, learn the local practices, and make life-long friends on this once-in-a-lifetime trip. Studying abroad really does look pretty awesome, but then again, I turned down the opportunity this summer, and feel no regrets in the slightest.

Lancaster University appealed to me because of its study abroad curriculum, which allowed you to integrate the year abroad into the three-year programme, meaning you had the best of both worlds. Lancaster University’s International Office really is something to be commended.

The wide majority of students at Lancaster have the opportunity to study abroad. The university works on an exchange programme, whereby they simply swap students with host universities overseas. Once the International Office knows how many students will be visiting Lancaster, the places are allocated to the different departments here. Some people will have enrolled at the university on a study abroad scheme, which means they are given automatic priority over anyone else. Others can simply sign up once here, although competition is fierce; last year’s intake was the highest ever.

Logistically, it’s a feasible opportunity for everyone. Those studying in Europe on the Erasmus scheme will be eligible for grants and bursaries to cover the wide majority of costs. Those wanting to go further afield, however, will generally find themselves paying slightly more. Whilst tuition fees are halved (you only pay £4,500 to Lancaster), students must consider the cost of flights, books, visas, health insurance, etc. Naturally, the International Office makes you aware of absolutely everything.

Anyone who has spent the year overseas will inevitably vouch that it’s a huge confidence booster. Having the ability to pack up and place yourself in an unknown environment (with completely new people) takes an incredible amount of gut. Plus, not only does having two universities on your CV look awesome, but people going abroad will develop a more sophisticated outlook on the world, and will therefore understand cultural values a lot deeper. Employers are looking for things that make you stand out, and having the knowledge and experience of other cultures can demonstrate flexibility and willingness.

But then again, it’s certainly not something to rush in to. In my case, I found myself flying out to the University of New Hampshire in the USA this summer, intending to spend the year enjoying the sights and smells of New England. In the end, I ultimately decided that the experience really wasn’t for me. Of course, this is by no means a bad reflection on my host university or Lancaster’s International Office; it was a personal decision influenced by a wide array of reasons. In that respect, it’s probably quite appropriate to offer a few tips, and attempt to point out some interesting differences between studying in the two cultures.

Firstly, upon arriving at your host university, you will undoubtedly experience culture shock. This is something I never expected; I’ve been to the United States dozens of times, and I assumed these visits would put me in relatively good stead. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case – I was four-thousand miles away from home, and I felt ill each and every day.

Most people tend to recover from culture shock relatively quickly, but I just seemed to have more issues. Once classes started, I was surprised by the intensity. One of my courses was much more advanced than my advisor and I were expecting. I was thrust into a classroom with seniors who had been studying the subject for four years – my introductory module at Lancaster didn’t quite cut it. Another class wasn’t really appropriate for my degree scheme – I was looking to explore child language acquisition, but instead it was more focused on childcare.

The structure of teaching as a whole is very different in a US university; in fact, it reminded me of sixth form. In the first class of term, students are issued a syllabus, containing absolutely everything listed side-by-side. Students had to submit drafts for essays that weren’t due until December. There were chapter summaries due each week, along with assignments, quizzes, mid-terms, and finals. This immense structure was a polar opposite to the independence we receive back here in the UK – it was no longer my preferred style of study, I much prefer to manage my own time.

As for living conditions, I was living in university halls, and sadly the corridors resembled some kind of prison block, complete with large black doors down each side, acting as the entrance to our cells. Don’t get me wrong, my room felt very homely after I’d unpacked my suitcase and done a spot of decorating, but the first impression was downright depressing. I also had a shared bathroom, which was used by around twenty freshmen on my floor; it consisted of two toilets and two shower cubicles. There’s no ensuite in the US.

Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that students potentially wanting to study abroad should expect huge changes. I’ve wanted to do it for absolutely years, but in the end, it turns out that I wasn’t suited to the lifestyle. Potential students should research their courses in depth (even if it means emailing professors each day), pay that little bit extra for the best accommodation (we’ve been spoilt in Lancaster), and then truly get involved with absolutely everything that comes your way. Surround yourself with new people, and have the time of your life.

Despite heading home after a matter of weeks, I don’t regret the experience in the slightest. Studying abroad does offer a wealth of benefits, but you need to enjoy the whole package to truly make it work.

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