My ten do’s and don’ts of studying abroad

By Jamie Chapman (The University of Sydney, Australia)

Now that my time over here in Sydney is coming to an end, I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on what I think the most important aspects of the study abroad experience are. I’ve made a little list of ten do’s and don’ts, based off of some of the experiences I’ve had during my time in Australia. If you’re in a position like I was, and still deliberating about whether studying abroad is a good idea/nervous about going, hopefully this’ll help!

DON’T

Plan too much
It’s so easy with something like studying abroad to dive right into planning every meticulous detail – where you’re going to live, the places you’re going to visit, the things you’re going to do – before you know it, your entire trip is laid out before you on a few sheets of A4. The reality is, if too many plans are made, too many flights booked, you’ll find yourself set in a structure that doesn’t let you really take in the amazing places you’ve ended up in. There’s a certain merit to ‘doing it live’ – appreciate the experiences that are thrown at you; they may never happen again.

Leave everything to the last minute
This is something I learnt the hard way, early on into my trip – I didn’t book my flight out of the UK until around three weeks beforehand, and ended up paying around twice as much for the privilege as I could have done a month prior. Once you arrive, you’ll want to get your feet on the ground as soon as possible – fight through the jet lag, get a bank account and phone number, find somewhere to live that isn’t a hostel full of travellers. There really isn’t that much to do, and if you arrive with around two weeks before classes start, then you’ll have more than enough time to do everything, but don’t be like me and leave finding long-term accommodation until you’ve got only three days left to do so – without a doubt, the most stressful aspect of my time here. Luckily, everything worked out perfectly, but looking back, it could have gone oh, so wrong.

Forget you’re still studying
This is a big one! Wherever you go in the world, you’ll undoubtedly want to explore, meet new people, do some amazing things with your time here. Don’t forget though, it’s called study abroad for a reason – you’ll still have work to do. This isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination – as a Music student, I’ve had some of the most rewarding experiences at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and I’ve met some of the most amazing people along the way. Embrace the new things that studying in a new country can bring to you, and you’ll appreciate your time abroad so much more.

Bring too much stuff
One of the biggest regrets of anyone who travels is that they bring way too much stuff with them. Think that you’re going to need that heavy winter coat? You’ll regret it when you’re lugging a 30kg suitcase through the middle of the city, jet-lagged and searching for the nearest coffee shop. Think about where you’re going, too – if you leave the UK in January and travel to Australia, like I did, you’ll leave the country in the middle of winter and arrive to 30-degrees of beautiful Australian summer heat, which won’t be so beautiful if you step off the plane wearing three layers, a beanie and scarf. That stuff won’t be seeing daylight for a long time! Also, you’ll undoubtedly buy a ton of stuff to take back home, be it clothes, gifts, or a pet koala (if only!). Top tip, buy a cheap duffel bag once you’re out here, fill it with stuff, and pay the extra bit of cash to check another piece of luggage for your flight home.

Be careless when it comes to accommodation
Without a doubt, this has been the most stressful aspect of my time here. You’re going to be travelling countless hours to a far-flung country that, odds are, you’ve never been to before. Throw into the mix not having a concrete living situation, and it’s bound to be stressful. You’ll want to get something sorted out as soon as possible – it’s going to be expensive, time consuming, and you’ll need to do a fair bit of research into the best things to look for. Speak to existing students at your host university, students that have returned from a previous semester/year abroad, and visit the university’s accommodation office once you arrive to see if they’ve got any tips for you. I got quite lucky in that I met up with some other exchange students from around the world once I arrived, who knew the best places to look for and we managed to find somewhere quickly that was perfect. Don’t jump into it, though – make sure you check out all your options if you’re going to look for private accommodation. This is where student housing options do really shine – yes, they’re a fair bit more expensive than you could pay otherwise, but it’ll be such a stress-free experience to arrive with a guaranteed place to stay.

DO

Travel
It’s an obvious one, but it’s absolutely the number one thing to do with your time abroad – travel! In fact, I’m writing this blog post aboard a flight to Melbourne right now. Doing something like studying abroad will completely change your outlook on travel, and you’ll want to spend every waking minute of your free time on an adventure to someplace new. Travelling to somewhere like Australia is perfect, too, where domestic flights are as common (and nearly as cheap) as Megabuses, and where there are so many incredible places to visit right up the coast. You’ll realise how closeted most Brits seem to be about travel, too, something which I totally hold my hands up to – the fact that I’ve never visited Scotland, for example, when it’s (relatively) right at my doorstep, is crazy. The travel bug will find its way to you, whether you like it or not. This time next week, I’ll be back at the airport, waiting for a flight to Japan to start my three-week solo trip through the country. Now I just need to hope that my bank balance can handle it…

Meet new people
It’s no lie that one of the biggest things that scares people away from studying abroad is that, most likely, you won’t know anyone. Maybe you have family, or a friend overseas, but for the majority of us, we’ll arrive all on our own. Of course, this is pretty terrifying, but pretty much every other international student will be in exactly the same situation. Most universities have some sort of exchange student society, and will throw a ton of events throughout the semester – hundreds of students from all over the world that are just as keen as you are to meet new people and travel all over the place. Some of my closest friends after this semester are not only from Sydney, but as far away as South Korea, and as close to home as Oxford. I’ve met such an amazing, diverse crowd of friends, who have paved the way for some incredible adventures in the future.

Be proactive
This is important right from the start of the entire study abroad process – getting all the paperwork done, applying for a visa, booking flights, etc. Get on top of everything from the start, and all the things you have to do to set yourself up will seem like a piece of cake. Push yourself to just go and do something all the time. Go and explore the city, meet new people, see new things. At the end of the day, your time abroad can’t last forever, so the more time you spend being active and just doing something, the better your experience will be.

Embrace the unexpected
As with anything in life, things are never going to go entirely to plan. You’ll end up in situations that you never envisioned in the first place, and frankly, the only thing to do is to go with the flow. Some of the best moments I’ve had out here have been totally and utterly unexpected. I’ve slept in a tent in an Australian countryside hostel with the resident kangaroo asleep just outside; I’ve sailed a yacht under the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the middle of a torrential storm; I’ve been faced with a collapsed bridge over a 40ft-wide river in the middle of a hike, only to be ferried across by two fishermen and their dog that just happened to be passing by in their boat. The same thing applies academically, too – you’ll probably go abroad with a good idea of the exact classes you’ll want to take, but in reality you’ll have to change them. Maybe there’s a timetable clash, maybe they’ve filled up, or like in my case, maybe the class doesn’t exist at all. Be open-minded, and savour the experiences you’re offered academically. The classes I originally didn’t want have let me have some of my music performed at the huge Vivid Sydney Festival last month, and I’ve also been able to meet some of the most incredible Australian musicians that are around today.

Say yes
Without trying too hard to sound like a cheesy motivational speaker, this is probably the best way to summarise my advice when it comes to studying abroad. Be open to whatever the experience throws at you. If I hadn’t said yes at that one meeting, way back near the start of first year in Manchester, I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to miss out on this. Studying abroad has been without a doubt the single best experience of my time at university, and I’ll be so sad for it to be over. Saying ‘yes’ means that I’ve swam with turtles at the Great Barrier Reef. It means that I’ve been surfing at world-famous Bondi Beach. It means that I’ve met the most incredible people that I’m humbled to call my friends. It means that I’m going to be travelling to parts of the world that I could never have imagined a year ago, and soon, it’ll mean that I arrive back in beautiful, rainy Manchester with countless stories of the best six months of my life.

Living Like a Local

By Jamie Chapman (University of Sydney, Australia)

So, while Sydney is experiencing what’s being called the ‘storm of the century’ (really, it’s just a little taster of Manchester weather), it’s as good a time as any for an update on how things are going out here. It’s week 7 of term, assignments are piling on, and we’re slowly approaching the bitterly cold Australian winter with temperatures plummeting to as low as 15 degrees Celsius. Maybe one day I’ll be able to use that beanie hat…

Here in Sydney we’ve just had the week-long mid-semester break. Whilst it’s not quite as long as the three weeks we get at Manchester, exams are still a way off so there’s not so much pressure to revise. Upon hearing this, my dad thought that this sounded like the perfect excuse for a little holiday down-under, so a mere 23-hour flight later, featuring a soundtrack of faulty headphones and screaming

The weather here is never dull, really...
The weather here is never dull, really…

babies, I met up with him in the middle of Sydney to show him a glimpse of my incredible experience abroad. Unfortunately, the overly dramatic Australian weather didn’t quite have the same idea, with a week of sunshine, storms, and me getting caught on a boat in the Harbour wearing nothing more than shorts and a t-shirt in the torrential rain! It definitely wasn’t a week to forget about though, with a day out sailing around the Sydney headlands, a trip up to the stunning Blue Mountains, and a week of living the student highlife and having my meals paid for. Not too bad!

I suppose that now, after six weeks or so of teaching, it’s a good idea to take a look at some of the main differences between university life at Sydney and Manchester. While for the most part, classes are structured pretty similarly, with a 2-hour lecture per module and weekly tutorials, it’s the small things that really make you realise that you’re studying in a new environment. Assessment tends to be more evenly spread out across the semester, as opposed to bundled together into exams at the end of term – for one of my modules, the bulk of the grade is based on small weekly assignments. The great thing about this is, I’m only going to be left with a single one-hour exam when it comes to exams in June. Another difference is the importance of in-class participation – for another of my modules, 20% of the grade is for tutorial participation. As long as I say one thing each week, that’s 20% in the bag – last week, my only participation was discussing the ‘Australian image’ in popular culture and explaining the Foster’s ads on British TV. Turns out the beer doesn’t even exist over here!

You wouldn't believe it if I told you there was a torrential storm half an hour before this photo!
You wouldn’t believe it if I told you there was a torrential storm half an hour before this photo!
AFL refs think they're in a Clint Eastwood film
AFL refs think they’re in a Clint Eastwood film

In addition to academic differences, there are also some things that Sydneysiders do or say that are just a little bit alien to the average Brit. I went to my first AFL game (Australian rules football) on Saturday, Australia’s most popular sport, to see the Sydney Swans – one of the top teams in the league. Despite being called football, the game is played on a cricket oval, the ball looks like an American football, is carried like a rugby ball, there are 4 goal posts at either end of the field, and the umpires look like they’re in a Wild West shootout whenever a goal is scored. It’s baffling to me. Aussies also have a weird habit of shortening nearly all of their words – afternoon is arvo, car registration is rego, and McDonald’s is Maccas. I even overheard a woman call Aldi, ‘Aldos’, which isn’t even any shorter.

Yesterday was the Sydney Abroad Fair, for all of the USYD students that are interested in taking a semester abroad next year. Despite the fact that an impromptu storm meant that the Fair had to be relocated at the last minute, causing a bunch of hassle and some pretty damp UoM handbooks, it was great to see the potential interest that a lot of Australian students have in studying in the UK, and at the University of Manchester in particular. It also let me really reflect on how different life is here compared to back home, and to chat with some Sydney students that have done exchanges in the UK in the past. I hope that some of those students end up taking the leap to  study in Manchester, and I’m sure they’ll absolutely love it (as long as we don’t tell them about the weather).

The Blue Mountains - Australia's own (and much greener) Grand Canyon
The Blue Mountains – Australia’s own (and much greener) Grand Canyon

Before I finish off this post, I’ll briefly mention some of the things I’ve got planned for the next few weeks. In May I’ll be involved in the Vivid Festival – an annual festival of light shows and live music gigs around the city, most well-known for the colourful installations on the outside of the Sydney Opera House. This year, the festival is coming to the main Quadrangle building of the University of Sydney, and I’ll be part of a group of students composing the music for a visual installation. Exciting times! Next month I’ll also be playing a gig with the University’s Big Band, and possibly taking a trip up the east coast to go sailing at the Whitsunday Islands. There had better not be any storms for that…

Settling in down under

By Jamie Chapman (University of Sydney, Australia)

Well, what an absolute whirlwind few weeks it’s been here so far at Sydney. To think that when I started applying for this whole process around a year and a half ago, I so very nearly gave up on the whole idea of studying abroad – giving myself that little push to hand in the application was by far one of the best things I’ve done at university!

Sick and tired of Manchester weather...
Sick and tired of Manchester weather…

After a cold Mancunian spell of January exams, along with the obligatory leaving drinks and goodbyes, I soon found myself in the Heathrow departure lounge, prepping myself for a gruelling 23 hours of flying…

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All ready to go!

Stepping onto a plane in the bitter British winter, then a day later stepping out into the Australian summer is the strangest sensation you could imagine. People could spot out that I wasn’t a local from a mile away, in my hoodie and jeans awkwardly searching around for a taxi! The shorts and flip flops rapidly made an appearance.

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A flip flop vending machine – the most Australian thing imaginable.

Sydney is such an incredible city – it’s a gigantic metropolitan place, but with such a great chilled-out atmosphere, loads to do and see, and a fantastic nightlife. My first couple of weeks here were spent in a hostel, which of course had its ups and downs – it was great to let myself be a tourist for a little bit, and to meet some interesting backpackers that had travelled all over Australia. After about a week or so in the same hostel, though, it definitely felt like I was becoming part of the furniture and I was aching to leave.

Finding student accommodation in Sydney was no mean feat, though. Apart from the fact that the cost of living is so high here (this makes me miss Manchester!), many Australian students commute from home to uni, so there aren’t a whole bunch of people looking for their own houses/apartments. After trawling through countless ads online, and narrowly avoiding living with a 40-year-old woman and her cat, I managed to find an apartment with three other exchange students – one American, one Italian and one Canadian. The great thing about this is, these guys are all keen to travel as much as I am!

Not too bad a place to spend a semester!
Not too bad a place to spend a semester!

So after a couple of weeks of being a tourist, it was time to actually settle down into a university lifestyle. As much fun as it was trying to surf (badly), chilling out at Bondi Beach, and getting a selfie with a kangaroo, the reason I’m here is to study, after all. Luckily, The University of Sydney is so chilled out – O-week (the equivalent of Welcome Week) was filled with barbecues, gigs and a lecture on surf safety! As I’m a music student, I’m studying off-campus at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, which is this impressive historical building (it used to be the stables for Sydney’s Government House), and is located down by Sydney Harbour. Getting off the train each morning in front of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House is not something I think I’ll get tired of any time soon.

The happiest day of my life.
The happiest day of my life.

Now that my classes are all sorted, I’ve settled in to my apartment and lectures are in full swing, it’s really time to enjoy the Aussie student life. Easter is coming up in a couple of weeks, with a potential Melbourne road trip in the works, as well as some ideas for trips up the coast later in the term. It’s going to be an exciting few months!

Jamie.