Spending a semester studying abroad can be a life changing experience. For some it’s a dream come true, and for others it seems so out of reach. Here’s how I got to study abroad, why you should do it, and what happened to me.
Going to College
To begin, where I’m from, going to college was definitely a very far reach away. It wasn’t on the radar for most kids in my neighborhood. With a scarce amount graduating from high school it just didn’t happen, not even discussed. Given their rough childhood, it isn’t surprising that my Mom and Dad both were high school drop outs, with my father eventually getting his GED to enlist in the Army.
My roots are in poverty, and growing up my parents always pushed us, “You need to at least graduate high school.” They wanted better for me and my sister. My parents wanted us to do better than themselves.
I realized very young what an opportunity was when it came my way, and understood that good grades open all the doors. There was no way I wasn’t going to be able to do what I wanted to do in my life, even after the harsh reality that my parents had no way to help pay for college.
I didn’t want to rot away in the “‘hood.” Drugs didn’t give me the fascination it normally does for teens. “I’m so cool, I’m selling drugs” or “I’m doing drugs.” My thinking on drugs was that it was really lame. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I grew up seeing and hearing about it too much. My sights were set on college, playing sports, joining clubs, doing things and going places! I had this recurring thought about traveling to other countries (outside of Canada) one day, all the way from lil ol’ Buffalo, NY.
I picked the place that actually couldn’t be further away, outside of Antarctica that is. As soon as I jumped over that college acceptance hurdle, my new goal: do a semester abroad! I set this goal as a freshman in college. Students usually go during their junior, sometimes their senior year.
It’s important to have short term, and long term goals. And getting overseas was a definite long term goal for me. How the hell was I going to be able to afford flying to Australia let alone living there for 6 months?! I was damn well determined to figure that out.
So, for those that actually would want to study abroad, you can’t just say “Ok, let’s do it! I’m booking my flight.” It definitely involves that, but there’s more to it. You have to have good academic standing. It varies per school, but I needed a 3.0 cumulative GPA in order to be able to even apply for the exchange program. So, knowing you want to study abroad early enough where you can get your grades in order is vital.
You also need a way to pay for the semester. Be it private funds or loans. Depending on what you were eligible for based on your FASFA you are allowed so much financial aid. It can cost more than a regular semester. Take into account cost of living in a different country, food, spending money, travel, visas, and the fact you won’t be able to have a part time job to off-set costs on your student visa. Who would want to work while living in a different country?! I know some might, but I suggest not working while abroad.
I took a small private loan, in addition to my regular financial aid package, and I was awarded a scholarship my junior year that was dispersed on my 3 remaining semesters. So apply for awards and scholarships at your school! It definitely helped me.
There’s a whole application process, an essay and all that jazz. For example there were questions like why you wanted to study abroad, and how you would represent your school, and country. “Wow, someone is gonna meet an American for the first time, and that person could be me?” There was a huge integrity factor attached.
There is also 2 recommendations needed for the application. So, you need to form some type of relationship with your teachers or coaches way before you even decide to apply.
After applying I was excited to learn that I got to the next stage: The Interview! When I arrived at my interview, which happens at your home school, I was greeted by 3 lovely interviewers. Three! I was very surprised, but I took it with stride. It can be pretty intimidating to be interviewed by 3 people at once.
The interview was about me and why I wanted to travel. That’s pretty easy to navigate. For me traveling had a deeper meaning. To see and experience things I never even thought or dreamt of, to learn things about life, the world, and myself. I wanted to see more than the city of Buffalo, and I expressed that the best way I could.
The interview lasts about an hour. And I remember it went well with smiles all around. 😁 I left confident. But I also remember being very nervous afterwards, thinking about my fate on whether or not I would be accepted into the exchange program.
The Journey Begins
About a week later I got my acceptance letter in the mail. I did it! I was going to Australia for a whole 6 months! May the to-do lists commence. I was ready to go…even though I had a long 6 months before I would fly out, annnnnnnd so much to do to prepare.
It’s Not All a Party
You have to remember that while excited to travel and live across the world, you still have class to attend. You can’t just fail out, because it goes on your permanent transcript. Although, it doesn’t get calculated into your final graduating GPA, at least my college didn’t do that.
You have to think about your course load. My major was Communications, with a concentration in Media Production. I had to take classes that would count for something. The classes had to pertain to my major in some way.
I took 3 classes. American History, because why not find out how other countries discuss my country’s history? I also took Australian History because duh, I wanted to learn about the country I was staying in. And my last class was International Media Studies, the one thing that slightly related to my major.
No One Believes You’ll Actually Leave
This is the one that really gets me. Everyone was really proud I was accepted into the exchange program. Super happy for me, but there was this weird doubt that I wasn’t going to actually get there. I come from a place where people have a lot of dreams, but not a lot of follow through. But I have the nerve to think I was making it to the land down under, right?
“But Amber, you don’t have a passport! Do you have to get a visa? What about your flight? Do you have luggage for this? You don’t know anyone there! And where will you live?!”
Yes, those are all things you have to do. You gotta be organized, and you have to be a person to meet deadlines. I wasn’t worried I was more nervous I would miss a detail somehow. I sure as hell was gonna get there, even if I had to swim! Admittedly, in the far-deep-dark-back of my mind I thought I wasn’t going to legitimately make it there either. I couldn’t believe it was happening as I set out and planned it. This weird paradox was happening in my mind till I boarded that plane.
When I look back on why people doubted me leaving, it was worry. Worry and fear. People didn’t want me to leave for 6 months. They were going to miss me, and god forbid if anything bad happened to me. I would be living in a place where if something went wrong my family and friends couldn’t help me right away.
My mother was the most displeased. She kinda gave me a shoulder shrug kinda response when I told her I was accepted into the program. Don’t be heartbroken by that though. She knows how independent I am, and also how determined I am. She knew whether she liked it or not I was leaving on that plane. In her heart she didn’t want to believe I would leave. She hated knowing that she couldn’t protect me.
Bags Are Packed
I got my passport, flight is booked, got my visa, bought some luggage, I’m ready to go. Well, almost.
My winter break was a bit longer. While other students started the semester in Buffalo, and exchange students were flying out a few weeks before the semester started to travel around their chosen country, I was finishing the swim season. I finally flew out the day after championships. I didn’t want to leave my coach and team hanging. Plus, I would have felt incomplete if I didn’t see the season through to the very end.
Also I’d rather travel around after the semester was over than before it started. I couldn’t blow all my money up front!
On My Way
It took me a whole 27 hours to actually get to Sydney. I was to go to Newcastle University, which is a town 2 hours north of Sydney, Australia. My parents went to the airport with me, and my boyfriend at the time to see me off.
Their hugs good-bye told me they all were happy for me, but sad I was leaving. My mom, I swear she was gonna have a heart attack just from worrying about me while I was gone. My flights were from Buffalo to Chicago, Chicago to San Fransisco then off to Sydney.
There were some delays, and some terminal running to make sure I made my connections. Finally at San Fransisco, this mess of an airport didn’t tarnish the feeling I had when I saw that huge airbus I was about to board through the window. I just stared at it for a few minutes. By this time it was night. Huge windows showing off this huge plane I would soon get off of in this super far away land I wished so hard to get to one day.
Once we finally landed I was happy. I made it! I survived the flight. And I mean that genuinely, as a little part of me always believes that the plane I’m on is most definitely going to crash, and I’ll just die a horrible frightful death. But not this time!
De-boarding the plane I found myself alone in the hallway. I was walking with my carry-on, and took a deep breath in, and noticed… Australia smelled weird!
Traveling is fun, and this moment always stays with me, because I was never prepared for the sensory overload. For a country to smell different was mind blowing to me. Utterly amazing. But of course it had to right, half a world away? I’ve come to love the smell of Australia, and all other smells I encounter on every journey. My nose will forever take note.
This was the big question that most of my loved ones were worried about. I was told that once I got to Australia the school would help me find a place, as dorming wasn’t an option. The folks from my US school suggested a hostel to stay at until I found my permanent living space. After the two hour train ride from Sydney to Newcastle I made it to my hostel.
It was now daylight out, I put my bags down on my bed, of this 10 bed room. Personal belongings on said beds, but no one there. My bed was right next to the window. I had the view of the walkway to the beach. A nice brick walkway with trees all around. My hostel was RIGHT.ON.THE.BEACH! I stayed here for a whole month, as I found out finding a place was a difficult task.
People I Met
Living at the hostel for that time was probably the best suggestion my school had given me. Most of the friends I made, and people I got close with were people I met at the hostel. I actually moved in with one friend I met at the hostel, as we found out she and I were both exchange students for the same “Uni”, or University.
From the hostel to the apartment, my roommates and the folks I met at the hostel were my regular hangout. They made my time there rememberable, fun, and harder to leave.
I don’t know if the beach was ever a place I favored. I don’t ever remember it being a place I longed to go growing up. The beaches in Australia though! I wanted to be on the beach everyday. With the hostel so close, being on the beach every day was easy to fulfill. Newcastle Beach was perfect because it was such a beautiful beach, but it wasn’t crowded. I felt like it was such a hidden gem. The town too. But that may be my purely optimistic and happy perspective. The fact of just being there I thought everything was just great. The roaches though, that was something I had to get use to. Yes, roaches! They were huge, and just out and about in town. I wasn’t fond of their giant spiders either.
As college kids do, we went out. We went out on Wednesday night. I found this very interesting. Back home peeps in Buffalo go out on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday nights. Mostly because a lot of folks didn’t have class on Friday morning. But Wednesday? Now, I wasn’t too big on drinking. Even with being in a co-ed Frat, and on a swim team and us having some intense parties. I didn’t like beer, and I grew up with a few alcoholics in my family so, for the most part it wasn’t much of thing for me.
Along with not being a drinker, and a bit introverted I didn’t want to be left behind, I wanted to go out with the people I liked, and experience even more. Being more social was a goal of mine while in Australia. Back home if I did drink I would drink Smirnoff Ice Triple Black. They’re tasty! Well those were $8 AUD a piece in Australia! While Victoria Bitter Draft beers were $2! I learned to be a beer drinker real quick! Let’s blame Australia for not liking sweet tasting libations hence forth.
I really liked the bars in Australia. We went to some really nice clubs, and bars. I loved how they were set up, and how the space was utilized. There were usually 3 floors. Bar on each floor, with different types of music on each level. Now this I learned is a more worldly thing, but bars back home were surely not like this at all. The bar (pun intended) was raised immensely when it came to the type of place to go out. The Aussies really invested in the places they drink, and I was happy about this.
The 3 classes was enough as far as workload goes. I believe I got B’s across the board. The first American History paper I got back, I honestly don’t remember what the topic was, but I remember I got a 65 on my paper! Amber does not get 65s! The note on my paper was that I had too many spelling errors. Americans and Aussies spell a lot of things differently, that whole “Color” vs “Colour” and the “z” or “s” in certain words. Did the professor know I was an exchange student? No, and he didn’t have to. But I learned my lesson quick, adapted and did better.
My Australian history class was in this massive auditorium. It was a class where I definitely was a number. Probably a few hundred in that class easy. I also took note of when the professor, while talking about Australian housing habits, mentioned how Americans are obsessed with renting. She made this grand statement to make Australians appear smarter because they all wanted to own as opposed to Americans who “WANT” to rent. Which is completely not true. Did she know I was an exchange student from the states? Nope.
It was things like that that really shaped how I thought the world saw Americans. Not to mention the Brit at my hostel who aggressively attacked me about “MY” poor choice in presidents, as George W. Bush was president at the time. To which I replied ” I didn’t vote for him.” It was as if he was patiently waiting to run into an American to unload all of his international grievances against us. But me and Joe, which was his name, became good friends. To which we tended to engage in healthy debates from time to time.
I went to Australia not knowing anyone. Some thought I was crazy for this, but it honestly didn’t occur to me to do this with someone. I learned many people did exchange programs with their friends. But I feel like If I did that it wouldn’t have been the same experience. So other Americans…Yes I did encounter other Americans while studying abroad. I didn’t hang out with any though. Why? I wasn’t there to hang with people from my own country. Plain and simple. Although, we did have one American guy in our group of friends. He was from the south. I accepted him because he was super nice and from a different part of the country than me.
At the hostel I saw how all the Americans hung together. They were the upper middle class suburban bunch that I didn’t feel connected to in anyway. Being raised in a low income neighborhood I just didn’t connect with folks from the suburbs in any way. These were the same folks that I had at my school back home. They all hung together all the time. It didn’t make sense, but when you take a deeper look it did.
Studying abroad you’re in a foreign place, you don’t know anyone, and you’re lonely. Oh! You see and hear people just like you in the same foreign place? You start talking to them and then you’re sucked into that comfortable feeling of being back home. I think it starts with homesickness actually. It’s not completely wasted, they had fun, and traveled around Australia just like me, but I believe they missed out on so much more.
We have to talk about homesickness when talking about studying abroad. It happens. I am not usually one to get homesick, but going into my semester in Australia I was worried I would. I was never away from home this long. One worry was getting homesick and just quickly going back home, to then be looked at as a failure. Did I get homesick? Yes. I knew life back home was going on without me. I was missing out on family and friend happenings, and things going on in the clubs, and groups I belonged to.
How did I get through Homesickness? I put it in perspective. My family would be there when I got back. My boyfriend and friends would be too. “I’m lucky to be in Australia. I have to make the most of it” was my thinking. I didn’t avoid contacting home as some might do to not miss home more. And I also made sure to go out and do something fun, and new as much as I could.
I called my parents to make sure they knew I was okay. Made sure to email my boyfriend, and got the gossip from my friends on the happenings. I did this about once a week. Them keeping me up to date every so often softened the homesickness blow while away. So, it does happen just be prepared for it. Think about how to tackle it before you go. This is a good article on how to battle homesickness.
Once I moved into an apartment, I was closer to campus, and it was nice as I walked to class everyday. Having roommates I feel is a right of passage. They are there to have fun with, support you, torture you, get in arguments with, and they’re also there to remind you that one day you want that beautiful one bedroom apartment all by yourself. It’s a love-hate.
My roommates were very diverse. I had a gal from Germany, a guy from Botswana, and two, a guy and a gal from Australia. I, being the only American. We tended to hang out together, and we got along, but man I wish they did their dishes! Cleanliness is a big thing for me, and for them it was an optional one. It was the one thing that bothered me.
The major positive culture shock about our space was that it had a washer, but no dryer as you hang your clothes outside. And I wish we did this more in the States! Americans have dryers, especially folks from the Northeast. There’s only like 3 months out of the year where we would be able to hang our clothes outside.
Luckily, I had no major issues with my roommates. I know the horror stories, I have none outside of the war it took to just try and cook myself something as all the counter space was taken up by sections dedicated to each roommate full of dirty dishes. Every dish, I swear, was used. Dirty dish kitchen nightmare.
I would say that it’s best to make sure that if you study abroad, do it while single. That sounds horrible, but hear me out. Long distance is very hard. I have tried it multiple times. It can work, but it takes so much discipline, and hard work. Why? Having a relationship requires to make sure your partner knows you care about them, you have to make sure to not lose that connection.
Staying connected is so easy at first. You have the time to call weekly, and email daily, to tell them what you’re doing, what you saw, what crazy differences you notice as you don’t have many new friends at first. You have the time. There are so many things to tell them because everything is new to you. As the weeks go on they run out of things to tell you because nothing has changed for them. This builds resentment. You talk about how much you miss each other, and how you can’t wait to come home. Which doesn’t make sense because you should be having the time of your life while you study abroad, not counting the days to go home.
Then you make some friends. You try to stick to whatever schedule you had at the beginning with communicating with your loved one. You start to forget to email, or call. Your partner notices more than you will. This starts insecurity, which leads to arguments and fights the next time you get in touch.
Ultimately, they need to give you the freedom to make sure you can do what you want and not have to worry about hurting their feelings if you didn’t email or call them at your usual time. They have to give you a lot of leeway. You need to not worry about back home. Is this selfish? Yes, but you need to be thinking about you and what this experience will do for you. You don’t want to regret how you spent your time there.
There are so many things that you will learn about the world and about yourself when you study abroad. You WILL change as a person as you figure out what you like or dislike. You’ll find out if you want to see more of the world, if you actually like travel, or if you love the familiar and like the comfort of knowing each inch of the city you grew up in. Is the path you set out in front of you what you want? What about the partner you chose, or the life you’re building. You will know all of these things once you’re back home. As crazy as this sounds, it hits you like a ton of bricks.
Coming back home from studying abroad was hard. Everyday I was there I saw or did something new. There was this constant stimulation. Once, I went for a walk around my neighborhood where my apartment was in Newcastle, and I got lost. I loved that I got lost. I didn’t know all the streets, or the exact layout of city, and loved that fact. When I got back to Buffalo I knew everything. I knew all the streets, every store on every corner, and I knew who to find and where at what time. There was nothing new.
Depression and boredom hit hard. It took me awhile to appreciate being back home, and the city I lived in. Because I experienced an opportunity that rarely happens to people in my circle I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my time there, as I thought of it as if I was bragging, but also couldn’t help blurt out random tid bits that reminded me of my time abroad.
What I Learned About Myself
There are so many things I learned about myself while studying abroad. Some positives would be my determination, organization, my drive, my ability to change and adapt, bravery and curiosity, my ability to get past my fear, and my capacity to see myself, being self aware, and learn how others perceive me.
I hung out with people from all over the world. People from England, Scotland, Canada, Botswana, France, Germany, so many others I can’t even think of, and obviously people from Australia. From those people I was able get a reflection of myself. I was able to see how people react to me, what I do, and how I am. I really saw, and took in how people responded to me.
Introversion, sometimes, is seen as a negative trait, and it’s really not. I was able to figure out why I was quiet at times, and not at other times, what I liked about people and what I didn’t. Introversion was not going to stop me from making connections and friends, or from enjoying my time. I learned that being myself wasn’t a bad thing.
Be True to Yourself
At 22 or 23 years old there is pressure to do a lot of things, pressure to adhere to the social norms that make you think that you have to like certain things to be accepted. This could be anything from having a drink on a Friday at a loud club, or to do a day trip with a bunch of friends and acquaintances, or maybe it’s being lazy on a Sunday morning. Maybe you’d rather stay home and read a book on a Friday night. Or take a day trip with only you and your best friends. Maybe you want to do your school work on Sunday morning.
You can do what you want. Be true to yourself. Studying abroad help me build the confidence in myself to say “Yes, I like this.” or “No, I don’t like that.” and be okay and happy with my decisions. It also helped me be better at deciding on who I want to spend my time with. I think it ultimately showed me how to make genuine relationships, because I was sincerely being myself.
In a new place I have the freedom to explore that. Back home after so many years people get to know you, and sort of trap you in to certain expectations that they have of you. If you try something new there’s this shock value attached. For example I always wear black, but maybe I find a dress that was green that I absolutely love. I wear said green dress then all day I face, “OMG, Amber you’re wearing green?!” It attracts such uncomfortable attention that you just stick to your normal everyday self, and habits.
I do in fact wear a lot of black, as I did as well in college too. I remember shopping in Australia and I bought this one outfit that I loved. It was simple, a purple shirt with white shorts. I was able to wear that without the shock value. And I was happy as a clam just exploring the Newcastle waterfront in my bright purple and white outfit.
Studying Abroad, Worth it?
Yes! All in all I say do it. Studying abroad made me a better, more confident person. It’s transformative, but you have to pay attention, or you’ll miss the subtle lesson that this experience is giving you.
I’ll also add that because studying abroad was on my resume it became a constant talking point in job interviews. It made everything lighter, and a much more comfortable, and fun conversation. Usually always ended up in me getting the job.
Did you study abroad? Did you love it? Hate it? Tell me in the comments. How do you think it changed you?
Always feel free to reach out to share your stories here.