I was dying to get out of my country for a long time. I’m from Mauritius and when I was younger, my father kept telling me that I would be privileged to go abroad for my tertiary education. It would most of the time be a reply to my complaints about not travelling enough, compared to my other friends at school. Little did I know about the obscure world of finance, or adulthood for that matter; because at that time, all I wanted was to see the world.
A few years later, my dream finally came true. In 2014, I was officially enrolled as an international student in Malaysia and I embarked the plane that, I believed, would lead me to my bright future. I chose Malaysia because of the various opportunities in terms of university programs and because of the international exposure.
I have not been brought up to be emotionally attached (I have typical Asian parents), therefore no tears were shed. It’s now been two years since I have been living abroad as a student, and although it comes with several obvious benefits, there are many aspects of it that hit me unaware.
Thus here are 11 unexpected, true and sometimes harsh realities of studying abroad.
1. Most of your time is spent with your own company.
The first week in the country of your dreams is the worst week you will ever spend in that country. If you are not accompanied by your parents, or any relative or friend, those first days will most probably be a nightmare. Settling in, having a new lifestyle, new places to eat, jet lag: the process is physically and emotionally tiring. The weather, if it is different from your home country, might also upset your immune system.
Breaking down, crying a lot and feeling that everyone around you have already settled down and are not interested in smiling back at you, are all common and normal feelings and first impressions. Indeed, you will eventually spend a lot of time alone after your arrival, because you have not had the opportunity to make friends yet, and even later on, you are going back to a lonely room, and often to a ‘ghost’ apartment, every night.
However, these should not be a reason to take the next plane back to your home country.
Personal advice: Being alone is not a bad thing, but only if you choose to embrace it; yes, you are alone, and there is nothing wrong with it. Besides, many students are going through the same adaptation process, and it is only a matter of days before the first class or orientation day to meet other people. Nevertheless, do appreciate the ‘alone’ time, as it nurtures self-love and healthy rest.
2. There is always that language barrier, or even accent barrier, for that matter.
Learn the local dialect or language, they say. Yet, no matter how long you will be staying in any foreign country, no matter how many words of their native language you learn… it simply won’t turn you into a fluent speaker. This is primarily because, as a student, you will be surrounded by English speaking teachers and peers.
Even English-speaking countries have their differences in terms of language. A big fear of mine was that I would not be able to understand the various accents and variations, especially in Malaysia, which is such a multi-cultural country.
Personal advice: Don’t be too disappointed, though, you don’t have to speak like those around you to be understood; there are other ways to blend into the native culture and to make the locals your best friends. Just be yourself. Speak slowly and if you don’t grasp the accent yet, politely ask them to repeat. People usually love to meet international students for their uniqueness, especially in terms of accent. In addition, universities promote non-judgmental minds, thus there is no need to be afraid of being mocked at. Simply smile and start the conversation.
3. Making friends is the greatest challenge.
First day of school and it seems that everyone already has their own group of friends, speaking in their own slang, while you are sitting in a corner waiting for someone to talk to you or for you to talk you. Your heart is beating fast and you feel like disappearing. If you have been on campus for a while, you might see a few familiar faces who will smile back at you, but who already have someone to sit next to. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, socializing is quite challenging for any international student.
Personal advice: If your school organizes activities prior to the start of the semester, such as Orientation week, city tours, and others, especially aimed at international students… GO. Participate in all of them. It’s time to break out of your comfort zone. Talk to other new students until ‘Hello, I’m [name], nice to meet you’ becomes a mantra for the rest of the first week. Believe me, if you miss those pre-organized meet-ups, it is near to impossible to form deep friendships that will remain until your degree is completed.
4. Your high school friends’ lives will go on without you.
Before going abroad, you’ve made endless reunions with your high school friends, which never seemed to be enough, and you’ve promised each other to keep in touch, wherever part of the world each of you will be. Skype promises, Facebook goodbyes… Yet, as you immerse yourself in the flow of the international student’s life, you will find yourselves to contact each other less and less.
Going abroad for your studies is like a new adventure, a new chapter in your novel. You will (hopefully) be caught up with not only assignments, but meet-ups, and hang-outs with a bunch of your newly closest friends ’til past midnight.
The hardest truth about it is that your old friends will too. Scrolling through Facebook, all of you will be experiencing different life events without one another.
Personal advice: Even after two years, it still pinches my heart a little: after all, these are friends you have spent most of your life with, and now you are all going your separate ways. Nevertheless, be happy for them, and for you. Besides, the deepest of friendships can be rekindled from a single ‘Hello’ in a chat, although you have not talked to each other for months or years.
5. Dreaming of meeting that romantic foreign guy/girl who will fall for you? Not happening.
Moving to a new country can seem exotic and almost fairy-tale-like. Embracing a new culture and meet different people everyday. Starting afresh. It is therefore not surprising that many of us, international students, consciously or unconsciously expect to have as much as an incredible love relationship as our incredibly refreshing social relationships that we form during our stay.
However, please, don’t come in a new country with the expectation of finding the romantic partner you have been waiting for all your life. For instance, I’ve seen many people joining clubs on campus for the sole purpose of dating.
Personal advice: Moving to a new country is to experience its culture and people in various ways, and none of the ways should be more important that the others, or you will be disappointed. If foreign romance does not happen, it does not mean that your adventure was a complete waste. Simply go with the flow and be friendly, not creepy.
6. Being faced with a pile of paperwork, all by yourself.
An international student is constantly doing paperwork, even before he/she enters the country where he/she has planned to study. This not only consists of VISA work, but also accommodation and university application. For example, in Malaysia, we have to renew our student Visa every year, although the system has recently changed. This involves paying the fees upfront and filing your information over and over again. In other countries, the procedure is often more tedious. The worst is that your parents will not be here to help you out at the front desk.
Personal advice: It is fundamental to keep a file of all the records and receipts you will end up collecting every semester. In addition, you have to remember your local phone number, passport number, and student ID by heart. Believe me, it will save you time and trouble.
7. Party all day, all night? It is not as appealing as it seems.
Students are known to party a lot during their university days, especially in countries such as Australia, where parties can be organized every day. As an international student, if you love to drink and rave, you will be tempted to lose yourself in the crowd and go with the flow. It can be fun at first, before the semester begins, however, it is perfectly fine to say ‘no’ in the future, when assignments start to pile up, but you find yourself in a loop of hangovers. Moreover, if the parties are not on campus, for instance in Malaysia the party-type international students would hang out at Changkat every weekend, your wallet will also suffer incredibly.
Personal advice: Party moderately. You might have accidentally appeared as a party person at first, but it is never too late to withdraw. It does not mean that you will lose your friends. There are other students with whom you can mingle with and who will not drag you to every party on and out of campus.
8. Living the traveller’s cultural life every weekend and break is a myth.
Speaking of an international student’s wallet: yes, you will always be on a budget, especially if you move to a country with a higher currency than your home. Parents are usually not very keen on giving their children studying abroad a high allowance, instead, after paying your overpriced rent, you will be left with the minimum amount of money you need to live in the country. This does not apply if your parents have saved tremendously and are financially backed up, eventually.
However, for most of us, it is very unlikely that we will be able to afford to travel every weekend or even during the school breaks, compared to what others might make it seem like in the media. Most of those who are on a budget and who still spend a lot on travelling, will end up being on a strict diet at the end of the month, while waiting for their next allowance.
Personal advice: Many students believe that they have to travel to famous and fancy places to look ‘cool’ or to ‘live the international life’. If they do not travel, they feel that they have missed one-time opportunities. All of this is not true. You will be able to realise your dream trips when you start working and receive a decent paycheck, by being able to save adequately every month.
On the other hand, as an international student, you don’t have to travel far to experience one-time opportunities. Visiting the city next door is an exciting adventure in itself, for instance.
9. Constantly questioning the meaning of ‘home’.
An international student is someone who hangs between the sense of ‘home’ being in their native country, where their family live, and the sense of ‘home’ being that little overpriced room in an apartment accommodating 6 additional students, in their country of study. Despite everything you will become attached to that room; you will have personalized it. It is the room which has seen you cry and laugh and indirectly kept you company during your lonely nights. On the other hand, home is still where you are from… or is it?
Personal advice: Loving new adventures and foreign opportunities are why I personally have never felt homesick, although I am far away from ‘home’. In the end, I have built a new life, a life I cherish. Yet, university days are only ephemeral and that dear room of yours is not even yours in the end. It is normal to feel confused and it is completely acceptable to not be defined by a fixed home. Let’s just settle with—home is wherever you go.
10. Moving out and dealing with accommodation is the hardest ‘adult’ task ever.
If you have been studying abroad for a few months and are planning to continue your studies for the next few years, you have properly thought about moving out of campus accommodation, either with friends or on your own, simply because the opportunities are wide.
In addition, living out of the campus is usually cheaper in terms of rent and there are also less rules: some on-campus accommodation have a curfew! However, going through the hunt for a room is exhausting. Welcome endless visits to potential rooms and… wait for it, more paperwork! If you are moving out on your own, you will also have to go through the necessary arrangements and bills alone.
Personal advice: Don’t rush in the process. Take your time to note down all the pros and cons of each potential place you would like to move to. Don’t take the first apartment that you visit right away. I have met agents who urge you to pay and reserve the place on the spot itself, but if you are still looking around, don’t. Refuse politely and move on to a more accommodating agent/seller.
11. You discover more about yourself than the country itself.
The realities of studying abroad comes down to one experience: that of finding yourself. By exploring the city you are living in, you will also explore aspects of your personality you have never seen before. By meeting new people, you will realise that you are not that anti-social after all. By spending quality time alone, you will meet who you really are, and with time, you will learn to appreciate and embrace that. Finding your identity is a daily struggle even from early adolescence, but it is when you are out of your comfort zone, such as in a foreign country, that it becomes a challenge, an adventure within yourself.
Personal advice: Be yourself and you will attract the people that you will form genuine relationships with. That is how we make the most of an international student lifestyle.
The stereotypes of studying abroad have hopefully been pushed aside for the truth to surface and to take into consideration before embarking on that expensive and challenging road. Nonetheless, despite everything, studying abroad is an experience worth having, if it is within your means. In addition, all experiences eventually vary from individual to individual. When you look at the facts closely, although they might break their expectations, the realities are not so terrible.
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