Studying abroad is an incredible opportunity – I can’t express that enough. But it is stressful. It’s not just a fun ride, there’s a lot of organisation, paper work, and you might just be on verge of breakdown with a week to go, thinking, “Oh my god, what am I doing??” because you’ve been so wrapped up in getting things ready.
Don’t worry, auntie Kirsten is here to soothe you through the process with my tips of the trade, having been through it myself.
1. Don the secretary outfit and file, file file!
Ok, so you don’t need the secretary outfit. But definitely get in that really anally organisational mindset. Make two copies of every bit of paper work: your visa confirmation, flight itinerary, travel insurance, confirmation from the university you’ll be attending, etc, etc. I say two copies because you should obviously take one set with you, and one to leave at home. It’s always a good idea to have your family able to help you out, having the information to hand in case something happens with the set you take.
And please, for the love of God, put these valuable sheets of paper into plastic cases and in a folder, preferably with dividers so you know what is where, and if possible, arranged in the order you would need them… This really isn’t just because I’m an organisational nerd (and proud) but it really is useful. No one likes the person ahead of them in the queue rumaging around in a panic for the right piece of paper.
2. Flexible returns
I really recommend buying a flight ticket with the ability to change your return date for no added cost. You never know what’s going to happen, the people you’ll meet and want to spend that last bit of time with. You might plan a big ending trip which may not fit with your fixed return. At the end of my time in Australia, I wanted a special trip with my best friends (I flew to Sydney then we went on an Aussie road trip), and I had the freedom to arrange whatever I wanted because I could change my return flight up to 3 times.
I did this through STA Travel, and they were brilliant. Phone up, say what you want, and they will get you a great deal. Most flights to Australia only 2 months before planning to fly would be over £1000. Mine was under £1000 AND I had the chance to change my return flight up to 3 times included in that price.
3. I need a dolla dolla…
Bank dealings. Not fun, but it has to be done. Forward plan like I did by seeing if you can set up a bank account in the country you’ll be studying in before you’re over there. Deposit money that’ll be ready for you when you get there – all you’ll have to do is open the account. Make sure you check for student accounts too. If I didn’t do that for Australia, I would have had money taken out each month.
4. Let go
This is one of my most important (not that they all aren’t) tips. When you know you’re going, you’ll be so excited, and you’ll imagine what it’s going to be like. What you’ll do, the kind of friends you’ll make, even so far to think what nationalities you’ll meet and what private jokes you’ll share (I have a very vivid imagination). Here’s my advice: let go of that perfect idea. I’m not saying don’t dream about it – do that to your heart’s desire, I encourage it. But don’t actually turn them into expectations.
Your time abroad will never be what you expect. It will probably be better than you could have imagined, and, to be frank, worse in some aspects. But that’s the beauty of your time abroad. It will knock you off your feet. It will show you things you’ve never considered and open your mind to some amazing ideas and people. Let the experience shape you, don’t try to shape it. Go in loving everyone (unless they really piss you off). Let it be.
5. Know where you’re going
This seemingly blatantly obvious statement does indeed translate into a more helpful hint. Research the city/suburb you’ll be living in. Buy a guidebook, find out what’s about in the area (also how safe the area is – always got to be aware and careful!) and transport. Figure out what routes you’ll have to take and whether you can get a train/bus pass, something like an Oyster Card. It’s helpful to work out how the city is set up – like New York and its Avenues and Streets, or Melbourne and its grid-like system and fairly confusing little lanes.
6. Learning comes from all around you
It’s not just your study abroad units you’re learning from, it’s the people around you. If you’ve come over with other people from your home university, don’t think you’re set with friends. I would never suggest to cut them out, but branch out. You’re not getting the most out of your experience if you’re not soaking up the company of the other internationals and locals. Some of the best moments I had was learning about other people’s lives in their varied countries/Australia. This comes from just chatting and having a laugh, I didn’t set up a classroom-style scenario or anything (I know we established earlier I can be an organisational nerd, but let’s not go crazy).
7. Be yourself
It seems so obvious, but it’s really easy to just mould into the crowd. This is an amazing chance to start afresh. So many people I know were relishing being away from their past. You’re with these new people, no prejudice, nobody knows you: perfect conditions to drop your inhibitions and not have any stigma that may have been attached to you over the years by people at home. You can be fun, happy, and bring out that little part you’ve always wished was more prominent.
Sometimes things will be hard. It’s not smooth sailing the whole time, and that beginning adjustment period can be very difficult (people don’t realise this a lot, they just think you’re out having fun every second) but you need to remember why you came. Have that faith in yourself that you did this for a reason, and it’s an extremely strong thing to do. You’ve done what a lot of people couldn’t (you’re not an ‘Oh, I would have’ person – well done) and the hard times are just as valuable as the good. Always remember that. Family will always be there for you to chat to (Skype!!) even when no one else is. I had even found that my new friends in Australia, especially the internationals, were a great help and going through the exact same thing.
8. This tip could get me in trouble…
Ok. Deep breath. This is it: don’t take studying TOO seriously. That is how you got there, but that’s not all there is to it. I don’t exactly expect that anyone reading this will be the type of person who was going to do nothing but study, but don’t stress yourself out too much about it. Some of you will be the lucky people who are there only on pass/fail. To which I can only say, you lucky b*s****s. I wasn’t, everything counted for me. I still wanted to do well, but understood it wasn’t what I would take away from my time there as the thing that made me happiest or most proud, even. Pick interesting modules if you can, related to the country you’re in (again, if you can) and you’ll be blissfully submersed in culture.
Allocate your time to do work, try and work it around when there’s not much action in halls or wherever you are, then you know you can let loose and relax.
Whether this is through a blog, like I did, or a diary (which I’d probably say push along with a blog anyway), write down your experiences! You may not be bothered at the time (you’ll be having the time of your life and all that), but it doesn’t have to be long at all. Literally if you just say you got sushi (I say that because I want sushi now…) and went to class – it’s better than nothing! Looking back and reading some of my blog posts is amazing and reminds me of all the fun I had and what I was thinking and feeling. I wish I had kept a diary as well to be honest.
Blogging is also a great way of keeping people back home involved with your life there. And even if no one reads it, it’s a lot of fun to do!
10. Say “YES”!
To (almost) everything. I said earlier about lowering inhibitions, and this is the time to do it. You’re in a new place with all new smells, people, sounds, buildings. Live a little. Do things you wouldn’t usually do. Face fears. Let go of your worries, what someone – anyone – would think of you and if you feel it, if you love it, do it.
A view I’ve come to have is if someone suggests something, or I think of doing something, but hold myself back, I think: will I look back on this and wish I did it? If the answer’s yes, do it. I hate to look back on life and have that twinge of frustration at myself for not being more adventurous and being too restrictive on myself. Wouldn’t you like to look back and think, “yeah, I had a lot of fun. I lived.”? Even 5 minutes later you’ll think that! And most likely, whatever it is you say yes to doing, it might be scary, but MAN, will it feel good. Don’t just go with the normal: spice up life that bit more! Bungee jump, wander the streets aimlessly, sky dive, jump into the water, take a trip, flash someone, dance in the streets, buy a weird sounding coffee or sandwich!
And when you’re studying abroad, there are going to be so many more opportunities to try something new. Grab it. I’m smiling just thinking about it.