Getting down to business: What to expect when you study abroad

Lauren West/Staff

It’s easy to romanticize studying abroad. A lot of people view it as a federally funded vacation during which you can lay on a beach in Madrid or pick tulips in Amsterdam. But alas, this is but a dream. For those of us who can’t afford to fail all of our classes, we’re full-time students while abroad. That isn’t to say we can’t travel on the weekends or make time to enjoy our host city, but it does mean we have to be prepared to treat study abroad as seriously as we would back home. Without further ado, here’s what you can expect when you study abroad.

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Orientation

It’s GBO round two! If you’re studying abroad with a partner institution such as the University of California Education Abroad Program or a private program, then you’ll probably have a set time to get acquainted with your new host university. This could range anywhere from a brief info session to a whole week of acclimating. While some people choose to use this time to party as much as possible, it’s a great week to become acquainted with your host university and the city that surrounds it. You can also avoid getting lost in the future by orienting yourself with the campus, especially with important places such as the libraries, cafes and, of course, your classrooms.

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School 

Once the excitement of the new country has begun to wear off and the orientations and welcome events have ended, reality begins to sink in. It’s time to get down to business and get adjusted to the way they do things at your temporary home. There are likely going to be a few differences that you’ll need to get used to.

For instance, at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, there’s less time spent in class. To be a full-time student, you have to take 60 units, which sounds terrifying until you realize you’re only taking two classes that meet for a total of four hours a week. But, this freedom comes at a cost. You have to learn to be self-governed because the amount of reading and preparation doubles (or triples) on top of your regular coursework, since many schools in the U.K. expect a lot of independent study.

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Homework and midterms 

When it comes to homework and midterms at your host university, things may look a little different from what you’re used to. At St Andrews, courses require a lot of reading. The university is a particularly big fan of supplemental reading lists. For our first week, the list had about 20 options to “supplement” my reading. Once the initial horror wore off, I soon realized that my professors weren’t actually setting their students up to fail. They weren’t expecting everyone to read everything on the list. Rather, professors want us to be able to pursue whatever line of research might interest us most.

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Ups and downs 

Every school system is a little different than the next. Each has its own little quirks that take some time getting used to, so be patient with the process. That’s easier said than done, of course. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed or lonely, you’re not the only one. School is school, and work is work no matter where you are in the world.

There’s something to be said about having the opportunity to get outside of your comfort zone and the Berkeley bubble. Studying abroad will help broaden your education in a way that other forms of study can’t. Be sure to take time for yourself if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Go on walks and take trips outside of your host city. Make friends who will make sure you’re making the most of your time abroad, but don’t forget about the ones at home.

It can feel like everyone is moving on without you back at UC Berkeley, but chances are, they feel the same way about you. So go sow your wild oats, but be sure to call your friends back home and check in with your family. They want to know all about your exciting adventures abroad.

Contact Lauren West at [email protected].