Entering the semester, I, along with every other exchange student, came in with certain expectations. Whether those expectations were met or not is irrelevant. In retrospect, the most important facet of the exchange experience is the unexpected.
Throughout my time in Bristol, I have encountered unanticipated situations, people and experiences. While reading a blog post about “what to expect” can reassure students thinking about going abroad, I reckon it is just as important to read about what is unexpected.
The best moments of my study abroad experience sprouted from ambiguity and/or spontaneity. While those two nouns sometimes push me out of my comfort zone, I have learned how to be flexible and steady in the unknown — which is possibly the greatest benefit of studying abroad thus far. So I want to highlight the Top 5 unexpected situations I found myself in and what I learned from each one.
1. The power of standing in the middle of a cathedral. Whether someone is religious or not (the group I hang out with has a diverse mix of various religious affiliations), we all agree that standing inside an architecturally intricate church produces a lasting effect on how one views their humanity in relation to the supernatural. Basically, every place we have traveled to has a cathedral, and our group intentionally carves out time to experience the rich history found in each unique church.
2. The bonds I have with my friends here. Before coming, I had this expectation that all my friends would be British, and that could not be further from the truth. Of course, I have a few British friends, but I spend most of my time with other exchange students.
My group consists of two Western Australians, two Eastern Australians (apparently this east and west coast distinction is important), three Canadians, a few U.S. students and one New Zealander. Never did I expect to leave with more knowledge of Australian culture than British, but here we are.
This group dynamic is something I cherish more than anything since I have arrived. I encourage other people thinking about studying abroad to get in contact with other exchange students because exchange students tend to want to travel more and do all the ‘touristy’ things.
3. The power of saying no. Beginning this experience, I was hesitant because I knew that chaos and the unknown often come with studying abroad. The beautiful and reassuring thing to remember is that chaos has no control over choice.
I found myself really enjoying the mundanity of student life here. I am first a student and second an exchange student. Often, I think people get that twisted. My friends and I all had an expectation of having to say yes to every opportunity that came our way. But just because we are studying abroad does not mean that we need to change how we spend our time or what we say yes to.
If I do not fancy going out until 2 a.m. at home, no one is expecting me to do that here. Embrace your individuality and hobbies, and the right study abroad folk will flock to you. Also, say no so you can save your energy for experiences you would rather say yes to. For example, I recently said no to taking a day trip to Castle Comb because two days later, a few of my friends and I were going to Milan, and I needed to get some schoolwork done before leaving.
Just because I am studying abroad does not mean I need to put my mental health on the line and experience everything that comes my way. There is wisdom in self-preservation and choosing what works best for you.
4. The difference in the educational systems. Although this might seem paradoxical to the prior point, I have found the school system here allows for more downtime. In the United States, we have assignments due every week, and our classes are longer. In England, the courses usually have two assignments per course: one at midsemester and one at the end.
Since I am an English and religious studies major, once I submit my second of the two pieces, I am free to go. The system allows for more self-taught learning than the U.S. teacher-taught approach. Personally, I have enjoyed this way of learning and I’ve found the courses also require less reading than at home. This frees up much of my time.
Since I am unable to get a job, I took up training for a marathon, which has been nothing short of hectic. My personality tends to crave extremes, so the training pairs well with the easygoing schedule. Recently my friends and I traveled to Morocco and Spain, so I have run in some beautiful locations, which also spices up the training.
My point in mentioning this is to encourage other students to find a sense of comfort and stability. Too much change can cause people’s mental health to go awry. So if you have a hobby at home, do not be afraid to enjoy it here. It is important to find a sense of home and frequently interact with it, so you feel grounded amidst a new culture and new experiences.
5. The best surprises. Because of my unexpected relationships with such unique individuals, my last point is going to consist of fellow friends and exchange students’ answers to the question, “What is the most unexpected aspect of studying abroad you have encountered thus far?”
“I was surprised at how quickly I felt at home and how easy it was to get settled and not feel like I’m abroad. The transition reminded me of my first semester of college.”
David — Montreal, Canada/mathematics major/22 years old
“I was most surprised by our trip to Morocco. More generally, being miles outside of my comfort zone in terms of taking ownership of my life and leaning into my course of action.”
Eli — Rochester, New York/mathematics major/21 years old
“In Perth, the opportunity to make friends at university is limited, so most people hang out with their friends from high school. The most unexpected aspect of this trip has been making friends with everyone at Badock Residence Hall and other exchange students.”
Matt — Perth, Australia/finance major/20 years old
“The most unexpected part of the exchange is learning French in England, ironically enough. Every Wednesday I participate in a French lesson at the language café, which has been beneficial in both educational pursuits as well as social endeavors.”
Aimee — Perth, Australia/music major/20 years old
As you can see, studying abroad opens so many interesting avenues and situations that you truly will not find at your home university. I urge anybody thinking about studying abroad to take the leap of faith and experience all the goodness found in the unknown.
This post was contributed by Katherine Link, a Global Ambassador for Spring 2023. Katherine is a sophomore English and religious studies major studying abroad in Bristol, England. Read her first blog post here.