Be Prepared When Study Meets Abroad-y

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Like many students I made the choice to pursue part of my degree abroad. Last year I submitted my resume alongside a letter of motivation and filled in a batch of forms for various institutions, in order to apply for a semester’s worth of studying at the University of Edinburgh. To my surprise and delight I was selected for that university, and from the 21st of September up until the 21st of December I was a student there. The experience was a treat, at once arduous, surprising and entertaining, as well as enlightening and joyous. Studying abroad is therefore something I can recommend to everyone, but not without the proper preparation. Thus, without further ado, be prepared to…

… study and work hard in order to qualify
This might seem a moot point, but it is important to have something to show for yourself when you apply for your semester (or year) abroad. Good grades and relevant extracurricular activities go a long way in procuring you that coveted spot at that desirable university. I took on some extra courses, partook in a play from the English department, and joined Writer’s Block. Though I am sure some courses did not directly impact on my suitability, they illustrated a wide interest and a certain ambition.

… take your time in selecting a good university
The seat of knowledge you attend is connected to many universities in Europe, and even beyond our own little continent. Therefore, there is a great range of universities to choose from. Consider the possible options for your study, think about the cities they are situated in, and go through the lists of subjects you can choose from. The latter is, of course, prone to change between the time of your application and your time there, but it at least gives you a good indication of what you can expect. On that count, you should also…

… ask around
There are a number of people you can talk to regarding studying abroad. For one, there is an international office for your faculty, and there are a few people specifically from your study’s own department who can advise on this subject. An email is easily sent, but it’s just as easy to knock on someone’s door during office hours. Of course, you can also contact people who have been to the university you might want to go to. Those students can share their experiences, which will include studying, living, and probably travelling abroad. The more information you gather, the more informed your choice will be.

… get organised and stay organised
For your application you need to include a number of things. Think of a passport or ID that will be valid during your time abroad, a list of the courses you are going to take in the semester preceding the one at your foreign university, a list of the courses you want to take at that university, and of course a good letter, detailing your credentials and reasons for such an undertaking. When the ball is rolling, you need to keep sight of forms like a Learning Agreement, which you have to fill in before, during and after your time abroad, and which needs to be approved by your own university and your host university. Then there’s a special form for the Erasmus exchange, you need to notify DUO to switch your student’s public transportation card for a monthly recompense, depending on what you do with your student room you have to notify your landlord and the tax authorities, and so on. Make sure that you know what you need to keep track off, have it in order before you leave and don’t forget it when you’re in the middle of your international experience.

… get in touch with people going to the same university
A smart thing to do is to find out who will be joining you on your transnational adventure. The university hosts a number of information evenings, and the last one concludes with a little get-together, at which students are grouped per destination. When I attended that last year, one of our number had the great idea of setting up a Facebook group and WhatsApp group, so we could stay in touch before and during our stay in Edinburgh. Many different groups were formed within that group, and those littler groups managed to procure for themselves something very important: housing.

… start early in finding a place to stay
You might be lucky in that your host university takes care of the housing for you, but it is most likely that you are on your own when it comes to that. It is therefore prudent that you take care of it sooner rather than later. If you have found a few people to join in on this venture, you are more likely to find a place: landlords prefer renting full apartments over one room in a bigger place. Scour the web for housing and don’t be too shy to make a few phone calls. Also, if you haven’t already contacted students who preceded you in your semester abroad, it would be a good idea to do so in this regard, for they might know a few people whom you could approach.

… plan your travels
A few months bridge your application and your departure, which leaves plenty of time to imagine what you will do when you get there. Travelling is probably one of your top interests, and rightly so. If you want to make the most of it, you should plan roaming around the actual semester, and not in it. Information on those semesters is only given right before they start, so you don’t really know what you can expect, timetable- and exam-wise. You are only sure of their first and final dates. Big trips around the country of your destination would therefore work best before and after that semester. Weekend trips can usually be undertaken when you’re there, of course.

… explore your new hometown
Even if you have visited the city you’ll be studying in before, you probably need to feel it out in order to make it your home. Go on a few walks of your own in no apparent direction, join in on tours the university might provide for first-year students and international students, and ask the locals for the special sights that tourists never visit.

… see your plans go to waste
For all your careful planning, though, it is highly likely that some of it will not come to fruition. The aforementioned timetables and exams can undo a number of plans, and there will always be unforeseen things preventing you from doing what you want to do. These are facts of life. Clichés. Don’t take this too seriously, though, and don’t let it ruin any part of your experience, because for every serendipitous roadblock, there is a chance adventure. Keep your wanderlust.

… meet too many people to keep track of
When you arrive in a strange place, you’ll meet people. You simply cannot keep quiet and explore on your own. No, you need to approach people, ask directions at the very least, and inquire into interesting things to see and do. Then there’s your new classmates, who you’ll be studying with and working with for a couple of months. Because you know you’ll be there for only a little while, there is an urgency to your relationships with these people, and a friendship blooms much faster and stronger. When the whole circus is just commencing, you might find yourself connecting to so many people at once, that after a while it’ll be very cumbersome to keep in touch with them all. And don’t you dare forget your friends from back home! Don’t worry, though, this is normal and it will balance out. Hakuna matata.

… miss quite a few things
In all the excitement of your time in a foreign land, there is initially little time to realise that you left behind your family, friends, pets, home, and many of your prize possessions that make your little square metre on this world your specific and unique little square metre on this world. There’s no shame in pining for those people and things once in a while – even the food you’re used to can be sorely missed. And vice versa, when you’re back home in all its familiarity, there’ll be the odd longing for the people and things from your adventure abroad.

… speak another language
Studying abroad means studying in a different country, and it is highly likely that your destination is populated by people who do not speak word one of your national tongue. Certainly, English is a language you can likely fall back on, but do give the local languages a try, as well as those of your fellow international students. There is nothing more wasteful in a semester abroad than just hanging out with people from your own country and speaking only your own language. What could you possibly learn from that?

… say “f*** it”
You’re away from home. You’re making friends from all over the world. You’re in an unfamiliar place that houses more unexplored adventures than you can count. Enjoy it! Of course you need to take your time to adjust to the pace of your host university and the tempo of your new surroundings, but do tell it all to go f*** itself and let your hair down once in a while. Join in on that pub crawl, take the trip to that island, attend that local musician’s concert, go see that play, explore that museum, and, only if you really want to, shop around for souvenirs. Only when the mood takes, you, of course.

… say goodbye
This very much speaks for itself. You leave behind all that you know to temporarily nest somewhere else, and at the end of it all you wave goodbye to that transient home, too. Don’t be surprised if it all feels like a sprint with a false start, because it takes time to settle, and when you finally feel settled in your strange new environment you suddenly have to go home again. You look back and wonder if it all really happened in the allotted time. It did happen. That is, if you decide to go for it.

Are you prepared for all of these things? I’m sure I missed a number of important points for this article, but then again there is no real one-size-fits-all type of advice for something like studying abroad. You need to do this on your own and find out what’s best for you. Have some fun with it!

Jules Kaartje

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