5 Things Nobody Tells You About Studying Abroad

Deciding to go and study abroad is a daunting thing. You were eager to join university, you’ve found your steps… and then you leave it behind for half a year/a year, plunging yourself into something entirely new. Again.

I think it takes a certain kind of person to take the risk and get out there. But even the most prepared person can’t predict everything that’s going to or could happen to them. Just like I believe there are things nobody tells you about university and travelling, combine the two and there are certainly things nobody tells you about studying abroad.

So – as someone who studied abroad at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia – these are some of the things I realised.

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Photo by Monika Markovinovic

1. You learn about many different cultures, not just that of where you’re living

If you go to Spain, you’ll most likely expect to learn to speak Spanish. Go to South America and you might want to search out the Latin dancing on the street. For Australia, would I be greeted off the plane by a man casually placing a shrimp on the barbie? Well, let’s not take things too far.

But one of the most interesting things I found was how much I learned about my international friends’ cultures, too. I knew from the start that there would be many international students, although I didn’t realise how involved in their cultures I would be. Our attitudes are partly sculpted by our cultural backgrounds and it was fascinating to find out how we were reacting and adapting to our new home because of how we’d been brought up with those national quirks.

You’d find comfort and reassurance in each other’s differences and yet we knew and understood what we were going through as a unified force of people from around the world. I got stuck into the educational differences of Canadians and Americans; my Dutch friends tried to teach me their phrases (to no avail…); and a Bangladeshi student told me about the extreme lives of the rich and those in the slums.

On top of this, I got huge dollops of Aussie doses, much to my ecstatic happiness. I had many laughs, understood new mind sets and it developed me and my understanding of the world.

Pretending to be a Canadian moose

Pretending to be a Canadian moose

2. You realise who your true friends are… back home

Making friends abroad is the easy part. It’s the friends back in England that I found most difficult to keep a connection with. Bonds are tried and tested as you try to find a good time to Skype and are no longer immediately in each other’s lives. Or, like me, you find to your surprise that neither of you are that bothered to try.

Unfortunately, I realised a lot of friends weren’t who I thought they were while I was away. When I came back, things were very difficult. But I think a big part of the reason was that I got to know myself a bit better and changed in Australia.

Another big factor is that university tends to be a separate, isolated bubble; it’s very easy to lose track of the outside world and lose a bit of perspective. But I wouldn’t change who I found myself to be, and sadly if that means going through a tough time losing some friends and gaining others, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

3. Don’t just research the city you’ll live in – there’s more out there

Some university study abroad offices are excellent at helping their outgoing students… others are not. I wasn’t at all impressed by how my university prepared me for oh you know, that minimal task of moving to another country. A particular highlight was when I asked a question in the office and was ignored for a full, silent minute before one of the nicer women realised I wouldn’t leave until I had an answer.

My point is that sometimes your university may not give you all the information to make the most out of your experience. They’ll do the paperwork needed, but in the end it’s down to you to work what’s out there to indulge in.

You’re a student abroad with utterly new, enviable adventures right on your doorstep. I always think, once you’re there, do everything you can. The beauty of studying abroad that the time is now. That’s a feeling I don’t think many people realise at the time, but once they do, it’s liberating.

You have a lot of time off to explore not just the city, not only the country, but every surrounding surface. For example, I should have travelled around Southeast Asia – I was so close! But when you’re preparing for the move, your mind can get bogged down with the organising of bank accounts, visas and accommodation. Which of course is all very important – but make that time to take that step back and feel inspired about where you are in the world, then weigh up your options.

Can you travel around a bit before you start studying? Maybe after? In your academic breaks, how far afield do you have time to travel? I did Great Ocean road for a weekend because I was close to it; East Coast Australia for the Easter break; and Bali for the study week before exams – don’t worry, I had no exams… my boyfriend did though, oops ;)

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4. It goes by really, really fast

It was over in a flash. You’re at the airport going home and you’re like, “Did that all just happen?!” Seeing as it’s such an amazing experience, you’re bound to be enjoying it so much that it’ll fly by. You can’t stop that, of course, but I wish I had been aware of just how quickly it would go so I took more time to cherish it (not that I didn’t anyway!).

So don’t take any day for granted, don’t say no or put something off. It’s very easy to think “It’ll still be there in a month, I’ll do so-and-so another time”. NO! DO IT NOW!

5. You’re going to have the absolute freakin’ time of your life

Ok, so this is a little bit of a cheat. People do tell you that you’re going to have an amazing time. But despite the number who tell you this, they don’t really get just how much of an amazing time you’ll have. Every time someone asks me about my time in Melbourne, I’ve never responded in anything more genuinely and heartfelt than when I’ve said, “It was the best time of my life.”

It’s on a level that you didn’t know you had. It’s a level that still surprises me now, 2 years after I first arrived there, eyes as wide and perplexed as a bush baby. You don’t forget about it. It’s not back to ordinary life, it’s a part of you.

Have you studied abroad? What do you wish you had known/someone told you?

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10 Comments

  • There are so many things I wish I had been told but at the same time, I don’t think I would have truly taken them on board. The study abroad experience is one big learning experience, a lot more than just purely academic and I wouldn’t change mine for the world! Go out, explore and be a big massive YES person.

    • kpowley says:

      Oh yeah, some things you just have to let someone figure out, even if you tell them! It’s so much more than academic (which is why I think people shouldn’t study too hard… but ssshhh I didn’t say that…)!

      I wouldn’t change mine for the world either :)

  • Virginia says:

    Very true! But if I’d been told everything before my Study Abroad semester, then there would have been nothing left for me to discover and learn for myself. With Erasmus I was lucky because all my new friends are spread out over Europe, not over the entire world, so it’s been easier to stay in touch and visit them. Great post!

  • I’m currently studying abroad and contemplating further study abroad – I have been stressing somewhat over making the ‘right’ study options for me and my career plans, thanks for the reminder that it’s supposed to be FUN and EXCITING!!

  • HannahontheMap says:

    I agree, one of the hardest things is realizing who your true friends are at home! I’m currently spending one year in Brazil, and I’ve found it very difficult to keep in touch with my friends. And, most of them have moved to different cities after we all graduated from college. I guess that’s just life!

    • kpowley says:

      True, that is just life! The friends that are worth it will pull through, and that’s quite a nice thought :) Hope you’re enjoying Brazil, would love to go there!

  • Melissa Hanlon says:

    Absolutely. I currently live in Melbourne (right next to Monash) and during senior year of high school i went abroad to Canada, one thing i wish someone had of told me was that you can actually learn and adapt quite easily no matter who you are, and if id have known that, i would gone to somewhere COMPLETELY different, like the middle east, Asia or northern Africa. AWESOME blog! you’ve inspired me to definitely go study abroad again, but when i begin university.

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