Hit the Road, Jock: Studying Abroad

Studying overseas need not be daunting or off-putting, and to prove it we have two first-hand accounts of just what it's like to study abroad

Feature by Katherine Parish and Amy Saunders | 18 Oct 2012
  • Wilmington, North Carolina

Blame Liam Neeson, and his stupid, poorly-drawn daughter for getting kidnapped within five minutes of turning up in Europe. Or blame Eli Roth for making out that any country where they don't speak the English is full of psychotic murderers. Those two have made out that travelling to new climes is inherently dangerous and a bad idea, and frankly that's a load of pish. Studying abroad can help you experience new cultures, make new friends, and tick various boxes on the great check-list of life while you're still young enough to climb hills. More on that later, but we'll do the facts first.

There are a range of different ways to study abroad, and the British Council have their hand in many of them. The Council's 'World Scots' initiative is all about sending Scots students off to the far corners of the world to absorb the local knowledge, so that when they come back they are worth employing and/or paying any attention to. There are two main elements to the 'World Scots' initiative, each with its own exotic name and set of criteria. In the blue corner, Erasmus, the enormous pan-European exchange project. Erasmus is 25 years old this year, having sent over 200,000 British students off to mingle with their foreign counterparts across 33 different European countries. Erasmus students need to have finished at least a year of university in their home country, and can then spend up to a year in another EU country doing the learning.

In the red corner, there's the The International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience. Catchy. IAESTE is for the boffins, offering six-to-twelve week summer placements abroad for engineering and science students, everywhere from Argentina to Zambia. It is a bit more specific, but it does offer genuine experience of the real world, and is open to students over 19 who are in second, third or fourth year.

As well as these options, your university may have its own exchange programmes with partners across the globe, so your options could well be limitless. But why let us pitch you the idea of travelling away from your friends and family to hang about with a bunch of strangers, when you can read the stories of a couple of students who've done it already and returned to tell the tale? There's no reason, so that's why you're going to do that just now.

Katherine is a German & Italian student at St Andrews
When I chose to study languages at university, the year abroad weighed in as a huge factor in my decision, and I chose to spend my third year studying in Verona, Italy. This wasn't the easiest option for me as any grades I got over in Italy counted towards my final degree mark. In spite of this I jumped feet first into a completely different academic system to the UK one, with barely enough Italian to ask for directions. Ten months on, I have to say it's been the experience of a lifetime. I have learnt things I could never have learnt here at home and have had such a brilliant opportunity that I would recommend to anyone.

First and foremost, I have to say that the year abroad is not a walk in the park. It will be difficult at first, I can almost guarantee it. European universities are unbelievably different to the British system to which we are accustomed; you are a lot more independent. Independent to the point where you feel the university doesn't know you exist. You will pull your hair out trying to work out the bureaucracy and feel incredibly lost at first when navigating the new systems and rules but I assure you, it's all worth it in the end. You may feel lost, but you're not alone. When studying abroad as an Erasmus student, you're guaranteed to find at least 100 other people in exactly the same boat as you.

Students from all over Europe (and beyond) study abroad with the Erasmus programme every year, and you don't have to be studying languages to do a year abroad (although it helps!). Universities will offer beginner's courses in their language and often offer courses in English as well. There are also activities organised by international student groups like trips to cities and nights out. Once you get the hang of it you'll love it and by the time you come back to the UK, you'll miss it. I would honestly recommend an Erasmus year to anyone; it's one of the most enriching and exciting experiences you can have in life.

Amy has just graduated from Stirling with a Film and Media Studies degree
Stepping off the plane in sunny, scorching hot North Carolina, I knew I’d made the right decision. Yes, I’d just flown to America for the first time (ALONE) but in that moment any fears were forgotten as the excitement of what lay ahead in the next six months took over. I’d always dreamt of studying abroad, but figured it was a distant, unachievable dream requiring A-grades in every subject. However, I quickly discovered this was far from the truth – the most important thing by far is to be enthusiastic and open minded to experiencing a new culture.

Most universities offer exchanges in multiple countries, the most popular being America, Canada and Australia. Being a film student I opted to choose the home of Hollywood – The United States – and more specifically Wilmington, NC, the home town of One Tree Hill. This meant I got to watch the filming of the show as well as meet cast members! [Editor's note – your level of love for One Tree Hill may differ from that shown here]

At first, moving to a new country and essentially establishing a new life is daunting. But within a couple of weeks, after navigating myself around the huge, beautiful campus, making some brilliant new friends and adapting to the yummy American diet, I felt right at home.

When I imagined American University life, I thought of the way the movies portray it – all fraternity and sorority parties, drinking out of ‘red cups’ and playing beer pong. Well, my experience was just like the movies, but better – it was real life! On top of this, I met some amazing lifelong friends from all over the world including Australia, Sweden, Spain, Japan, and of course, America, giving me free places to stay for many holidays to come!

Of course, study abroad isn’t just a social experience, studying is also a big part. The standard of teaching at American Universities is excellent because the students pay such high tuition fees. I learnt so much in my semester abroad and got the chance to take some weird but wonderful classes led by some equally wacky but lovely professors. And I promise, if you study in America, they LOVE any kind of British accent, making you very popular!

Following an unforgettable semester in North Carolina, I spent a month travelling the States with my new friends. I can honestly say it was the best few months of my life, and now I’m just working on getting a Green Card...