Study abroad. Exchange. Semester away. I’m-going-to-go-find-myself-in-Europe. Whatever you want to call it, they’re all synonymous with each other and having just completed my experience, I’d like to think of myself as somewhat of an expert in this area. You may not agree, so let’s find out if I can change your mind.
In year 10 of high school, we were presented with the opportunity to go on exchange for six months to a country of our choice. I was too scared to do anything about it then so when I arrived at university a few years later, I was hell bent on including a study abroad experience in my degree. Ask my friends, from halfway through semester one of first year, it’s all I wanted to do while I was at university. Nothing was going to stop me.
I’d like to think I was still as petrified as my 14-year-old self about the prospect of leaving my family and my beloved Australia, however, I knew if I didn’t do this I’d regret it for the rest of my life. How many times in your life can you charge an overseas experience of late nights, cultural immersion and antics you know you would never get up to back home onto your HECS? (I think the answer is two, if you actually wanted to know). So, no matter how many tears I shed at the airport, and trust me there was plenty, no matter how many money woes I had in the lead up and the general holy-shit-I’m-moving-overseas-for-literally-months mindset that was building in my mind, I was doing this.
I gave up a job I loved for my exchange, missed attending an overwhelming amount of celebrations back home that would happen while I was away and, I think the hardest for me, was it was a catalysing factor in my last relationship ending. Obviously, there are many other factors that can make pursuing an exchange questionable in your mind but please put them aside. Do not listen to them. Unless you are physically incapacitated and cannot move or have a crystal ball and know this will happen, submit your application and commit to your host university when accepted. This is one of the best decisions you will make in your life and, after being asked many questions about the whole ordeal, I’m here to answer why. (if you want to get to the less university-oriented content and the more blog/dairy content, skip through the first three questions).
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of my experience, I’ll add some context. I studied abroad for a semester at Cardiff University in the capital city of Wales, Cardiff and I studied at the School of Journalism, Media, English and Culture (JOMEC) studying full-time for three months.
How did you apply? Does it impact on your study plan/degree timeline?
This depends on your university at home in Australia however I will explain what my personal process was. I applied through the Global Learning office at The University of Adelaide in Semester Two of first year for a place abroad in Semester Two of second year. It’s very simple and all information can be found online at the Global Learning website. Basically, you read up on all the universities that offer courses that suit your degree and your degree major, pick your top three choices and place them into your application. You submit your application, wait a few months, wonder if you actually did submit it properly because it’s been so long yet still haven’t heard anything and then, one day, you cheekily look at your phone while at work and see the response and you go ‘shit, I’m going abroad for a semester.’ Well, maybe not exactly like that, but you get the idea.
In terms of impacting your degree, again, speak to your faculty but it should be easy enough to fit an exchange into your university experience. Personally, I had to study Journalism modules only while abroad otherwise I would forfeit my Journalism major back home and only graduate with a general Media degree and not have specialised in Journalism. However, a fellow Australian from Sydney studied only electives while abroad that were completely unrelated to their degree at large. An exchange can potentially extend your degree by a semester depending on what you are required to study once back home. It really does depend on what is expected by your faculty and individual school but it can definitely be included in your degree plan and I 100% recommend looking into it before writing it off as something that’ll be too hard to work around.
How much money should you take? Is it as expensive as it is made out to be?
Ah money, thou art a heartless bitch. I’ll be completely candid, I didn’t take enough money while abroad and the terrible conversion between the Australian Dollar and the Great British Pound really hit my savings for six. All I can offer in terms of money is take more than you think you’ll need. Stay home on a Saturday night instead of going to Rocket and keep that $100 you would have spent on alcohol and entry fees because you will need it once you’re away and desperate for cash. Save all of your tax return if you get over $1,000 back, work extra hours, take the shift at Harbour Town even though it’s a train and two busses from home. Get all the cash you can and keep it so you don’t have to beg your parents for money a month out from returning home.
I’ll admit I don’t do things like the typical exchange student- I’m not trying to sound like a wanker but I am trying to be completely candid. I’ll fly or catch a train before I set foot on a bus ride that is over 3 hours long. I refuse to stay in hostels because I’m particular and like my own space. I spent money on expensive things while in Florence and Paris but everyone does their exchange differently and I don’t regret a minute of mine. Except maybe not visiting Belgium while next door in Holland.
Did you work while abroad?
No, I didn’t. I didn’t want to work while abroad because I just wanted to be a student for a few months without any real commitment to anything. Working abroad also means you may need a different Visa instead of a student-only Visa so look into that if you plan on working abroad. I don’t know much about Visas as I am a UK/EU citizen so I didn’t need to apply for any of that documentation before I left. I do recommend that if a parent of yours is from the EU/UK/wherever you want to go, and you don’t have any lofty ambitions to become Prime Minister, that you try claim that citizenship before going abroad. It’s incredibly handy and gives you access to a lot more rights than just a Visa does. It’s not cheap to become a dual citizen and does take a few months but depending on the country, it is relatively simple and very handy to have in your back pocket in my experience.
Is it one big party?
Depends on the person, right? Yes, for me it was a big party a lot of the time and that was completely fine by me. I like having a drink or seven, a groove with some friends and let my hair down. I may have done this a bit too much according to some but I knew when I arrived back home it wouldn’t be like this all the time so why not enjoy it while it’s there? Every exchange is different and I cannot stress this enough but if you like to go out on weekends and like socialising with people the trust me, you’re going to have a great time and it will be one big party.
Are you lonely? Do you make friends?
Coming from Australia where you go to uni for classes and then back home to (probably) your parents’ house, making friends can be a rarity. However, where I stayed in Wales, you live with your fellow students. You’re basically forced to make friends because you see these people every single day. The first week or two I found this hard as I’d almost forgotten how to make friends but I pushed myself to socialise and get to know these people. It was hard, scary, intimidating even for an extrovert like myself but it was worth it. These people become like your bets mates, your ride or die’s, the people who see you at your best and worst. Don’t stress about making friends even if at first it seems that it won’t happen. It will. Trust me, it will.
Do you miss home?
Sometimes all I wanted was a Zambrero or my Mums cooking or my dog. God, you have no idea how much I missed my dog. I missed her more than anything. Yes, there are times where all you want to do is jump over to Australia for a few days and come back. Everyone else goes home on weekends every now and then, why can’t I?! Oh, that’s right, because Birmingham is slightly closer to Cardiff than Adelaide is. I made a conscious effort to not miss Adelaide because I knew how fast this experience would fly by and before I knew it I’d be back in the City of Churches far, far away from Europe and its gateway to many destinations. You need to remind yourself that even though you may miss home, once you’re back it’s likely you’re going to be stuck there for a few more years unless you take a quick trip away. Savour your time abroad, don’t wish it away even in the loneliest moments.
Is travelling alone scary/intimidating?
TRAVELLING SOLO IS AMAZING! I can’t say this enough, I had the most wonderfully liberating, independent, euphoric time exploring parts of the world all on my own. While my Grandmother was scared I was going to end up murdered or kidnapped, this never entered my mind. I was so very excited to see cities all by myself, on my own time schedule and with no one else to think about. I am an only child so being in my own company never bothered me and I am an independent person anyway.
I will say that it is not always rainbows and happy days while travelling solo. When I arrived in Italy, my taxi driver left me on the side of the road with vague instructions of how to reach my hotel. I was in one of the dodgiest neighbourhoods in Rome, near Roma Termini station, which was not as described by my travel agent. I was literally bawling my eyes out walking up the street with a 30kg suitcase and 7kg hand luggage in 35-degree heat while wearing RM Williams boots and a heavy coat. I was scared and felt very alone. A passer-by came to help me and took me to my hotel where the staff were rude and unwelcoming and I cried myself to sleep. Other than this scarring experience, I had the best times of my life walking the streets of Florence, Paris, London, Amsterdam and Utrecht all my myself. There will be hiccups but that’s like anything new.
Was it worth it?
Yes. Every single bit of my exchange was worth it. From running through Heathrow to make the coach to Cardiff, climbing the Arc de Triomphe on a scorching Autumn day, eating McDonalds chips for dinner because I was so poor in Holland, all of the big and small moments made the exchange what it was. I wouldn’t change a minute of it. I’m sorry for all the clichés in this section but they are very apt. I’d like to think I have changed a little since being away from my everyday life for quite a few months. Maybe people can tell, maybe they can’t, but I do feel more at ease and a way that I cannot put my finger on. Relaxed, maybe. I don’t know how long this will last but I’m liking it.
Please stop the hesitation and take the leap. Apply for an exchange at university and go see the world and experience something different to home. Throw yourself completely into it even if it is the scariest prospect you’ve ever faced. Maybe you’ll look out over a foreign city and suddenly have your perspective changed on everything. Maybe you’ll decide you’re not going to come home and defer for a semester to sustain the life you’re living. Or maybe you’ll meet a boy who makes you feel something you haven’t felt for a long time which makes you ridiculously happy and then you realise you live in different parts of the world most of the time. Oops.
What is it like when you come home?
Honestly, for me, the comedown was huge. It was the most surreal feeling when I stepped off the plane at Adelaide. I’m home? Home? It’s all OVER?! I hated getting back into the routine of old, coming back to living far from a CBD and generally lacking the total independence that an exchange brings with it. This is something I wasn’t prepared for but it really does hit you ridiculously hard. But, like everything, you get used to being home and just deal with the flow of things again. Just don’t let that carefree nature you gained abroad die off when you come home and, trust me, this is harder to execute than you would expect.
This was much longer than I had planned it to go on for. If it helps one person decide, it’s done its job. Close this tab and apply for an exchange. Stop putting it off.