Studying abroad makes you feel out of place. That is the whole point, right? When I arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland I was not only experiencing a new country and a new culture. For the first time in five years I was living with other college students, taking a full course load, and committing myself full-time to the university experience without working a job. I very quickly went from part-time student to full-time study abroad student. Oh, and I was half a decade older than most of my peers.
Out of high school I attended a traditional full-time university in North Carolina. This was very much a failed experiment, as I never connected with the lifestyle. The party culture and lack of hard work from my peers repelled me, and I became very isolated. After that first year, I returned home to Boston, where I worked full time and continued my education at Boston College with part-time classes. I had my own studio apartment where I was able to work as much as I wanted without being bothered by partying roommates.
By the time I was 23, however, I decided to make a career commitment to writing and teaching. I knew I needed to finish school. Studying abroad (especially at a prestigious school like the University of Edinburgh) seemed like a perfect transition from working full time to studying full time. I wanted to be in a city that would motivate me to pursue this lifestyle change with the same tenacity I had put toward my previous work.
However, I was 23 and most British students are 17 when they arrive at university. I had trouble relating to 17-year-olds when I was 17; it was tough to imagine I could do it at 23. Despite that, I enrolled in the program and got on the plane.
I was lucky enough to fall in love with the city I arrived in. I had never been to Europe, so I could have ended up somewhere I did not fit in, but Edinburgh immediately felt like home. This helped quite a bit in terms of creating an enjoyable and educational abroad experience. Even in a city you love, however, you can still feel isolated if you fail to experience legitimate human connection.
This was where all the typical study abroad advice came into play. IFSA’s thorough orientation helped me connect with a group of like-minded students who I got along quite well with. They felt like a small piece of home in a city thousands of miles from my friends and family. I was grateful to find these friends, but I refused to be someone who came back from studying abroad with new American friends and no friends from other countries. And so, once IFSA orientation ended, I knew it was time to make myself uncomfortable and start forming connections in Scotland.
Once again, I lucked out that I was in Edinburgh. The week before classes begin at the University of Edinburgh is so full with orientation events that I hardly found time to sleep. As a shy person (who still felt out of place as a 23-year-old with a full beard), I was absolutely uncomfortable at these events. Regardless, I forced myself to go to them, knowing the reward would ultimately be worth it.
I ended up in three organizations on campus. I went to an introductory social event for the student-run newspaper, which is a very serious organization in Edinburgh. I ended up writing numerous feature articles for the newspaper. At an activities fair, I learned that there was a university ice hockey team. I had no idea ice hockey existed in the UK, but I had my gear sent over and I made the team. Finally, a student I met at the social event for the newspaper connected me with her friend who ran a health and fitness society on campus and needed someone to write blogs for her. When I called my parents to tell them about all this, they had to remind me that I needed to leave time for class as well.
These particular organizations worked for a number of reasons. The hockey team was mostly grad students, so I was closer to them in age. The student paper and health and fitness society were both made up of students with whom I had a shared passion. By finding a niche within my host country, I was able to effectively connect with international students in a setting that expanded my comfort zone without stretching me too thin. By the time December rolled around, I was dreading leaving my adopted city and my newfound British (and Chinese, Lithuanian, and Israeli) friends. I have been back home for three months now, and I just booked my plane ticket to Scotland for playoffs next month.
I am not going to tell you to be yourself or to get out there and experience new things, because plenty of people will tell you to do that along the way. However, in the few months since returning to the U.S., I put a list together of suggestions I would give future students preparing to study abroad:
1. You’re never too old to study in another city.
2. Make yourself very uncomfortable in the first couple weeks; it will help you be more comfortable in the following weeks.
3. If other people don’t want to do something you were excited to do, do it alone (assuming it is safe to do alone).
4. Keep a journal; always try to point out what you learned that day.
5. Text Americans less, speak to locals more.
6. Take fewer trips, explore your host city more.
7. Make a list of learning and experience goals before you go, but be open to the possibility that your learning and experiences could end up changing completely along the way (that’s what happened to me).
8. Learn the local language, dialect, colloquialisms, etc.
9. Don’t try to Americanize things you learn about your host country. Try to understand them within their cultural context.
10. Make yourself sad to leave your host country. The day I flew home from Edinburgh I started looking for a time to return. Making surface-level connections or treating your city as a launchpad for foreign travel will detract from the whole experience. Foster strong connections, and make your host country a place you can’t wait to return to after you leave.