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!
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.
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.
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.
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.