Ailsa Jones ♦ Queen’s University, Canada
Since my exchange has finished and I’ve come home, I’ve been attempting to answer my family and friends’ inevitable and well-intentioned questions about my semester abroad. Even though my generic response is something as brief as ‘amazing, thanks,’ I don’t think it does justice to both the best and difficult aspects of my exchange. As much of a cliché as it is, my semester abroad was easily one of the best things I’ve ever done, but I think it’s also important to be honest about the harder parts of studying abroad that are rarely discussed.
Probably the hardest and most commonly experienced challenge is the beginning of exchanges. The combination of expectation and anticipation can make your arrival slightly anti-climactic. Initially it can be overwhelming when you’re trying to adjust to a new country, new living arrangements, a new academic system and make friends, all whilst trying to keep up with people at home. Essentially, it’s very similar to being a fresher again except this time you’re even further away from home and you spend most of the first week being jetlagged rather than hungover. Like fresher’s week, there’s a strong expectation to simultaneously become best friends with everyone you meet, know your way around a new area, be on top of your studies, and generally be settled within the first few days. In reality, you spend most of your first week lost, confused and stressed. Obviously over time everything eases as you become increasingly familiar with everything, but it’s worth knowing that initially little tends to go to plan and that’s okay.
Once the first couple of weeks pass and the workload begins to start, you’ve quickly got to try and to get to grips with the new style of teaching and assessments. Even though it’s easy to forget the significance of academics when going abroad, it has the potential to substantially impact your time abroad both positively and negatively. From my experience, Manchester seems to be unique in the fact that for semester long exchanges the grades achieved are directly converted back rather than being pass/fail, something that adds to the pressure of doing well. For me, both the quantity and difficulty of the workload differed from my home university which forced me to change my working habits – admittedly probably for the better. Rather than the typical three courses that I take per semester in Manchester, in Canada I had to take a minimum of four – and as two of those were third year courses I definitely had to dedicate a larger proportion of my time to my work. Also, as I did different subjects to what I typically study at home, the type of assessments varied greatly. For one class I had to write a twenty-page paper, whereas in another, part of my grade was achieved by bringing a food dish for my classmates accompanied by an explanation of why it was integral to my identity. Clearly, the academics will inevitably be different from what you’re used to which can be daunting or even just unusual. The easiest and probably most obvious solution to these potential problems are going to see your professors and teaching assistants. Once they find out you’re an exchange student they generally are happy to explain their expectations – many of which were crucial to doing well. Having established a relationship with them from the offset it makes life so much easier if and when you find yourself struggling with anything.
Hopefully like me you’ll find that your exchange is overwhelmingly positive, and that even if you do encounter these problems that they subside as your exchange progresses.
It goes without saying that by the end of your exchange you will have made friends for life, (hopefully) passed all your courses and will have come to know the area as well as the locals. But like anything, it takes time for things to fully fall into place, and by the end even the thought of returning home will seem strange.