Studying abroad is a daunting concept for most people. How is it possible to leave my friends, family, professors, and all my activities for a semester? How about leaving everything you find comforting and entering a whole new culture… for a whole year??? This was the dilemma I struggled with when I was applying to study abroad. As much as I wanted to leave my comfort zone, passport in hand, there was a lot of things that could have prevented me from taking the leap. I wanted to write this post for anyone debating on staying for the year and show why I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. (Disclaimer: some of these tidbits are St Andrews-specific, some are more general. They are all based on my experience studying abroad and does not reflect anyone else’s thoughts unless explicitly stated.)
1. More time, in general
A familiar scenario: Your friends who are studying for a semester are gone every weekend, trying to cram in every ounce of European travel as they can. Their lives in their host city are Monday to Friday, or sometimes even Tuesday to Thursday. They complain about discovering things right before they leave to go home for break and wish they spent more time in their host city in hindsight. If you’re studying for the year, there is no pressure to jet off as soon as your last class ends. You have more time to plan out trips, enjoy where you are, and explore in a relaxed way. You have the ability to experience all 4 seasons (location permitting), and how many people can say they’ve seen Scotland during Christmas time? Or in the spring, when the daffodils are in bloom?
2. Making friends outside your program
Especially at St Andrews, you are encouraged (nay – required!!) to expand out of your HC friend circle. This sounds like freshman year all over again, rapidly meeting and getting to know people, which it kind of is. But it is a lot easier than you think. St Andrews is unique in that it facilitates bonding throughout the class years. Academic families and Raisin weekend is a great way to meet people in a relaxed way. Most HC students are not put together in the same flats (Casey and I are the only exception) and most flats have up to 5 other people sharing a kitchen with you! You are bound to hit it off with some of them, if not all. Shared lectures, practicals, social events, friends of friends, societies – these are some of the ways that you can expand your network internationally. You won’t regret trying to strike up conversation in the long run! (Special shoutout to the best academic mums a girl could ask for, Alexa and Alicia, couldn’t have survived this year with out you guys!)
3. Saying you lived abroad for a significant amount of time
Let’s be honest, the world is becoming more and more competitive. In some areas, getting into PRESCHOOL is all based on who you know. Sometimes we need something that sets us apart from other U.S. college students. St Andrews has one of the most revered International Relations departments in Europe, if not the world. I implore students who are interested in anything foreign (markets, policy, tourism, etc) to consider studying here- my IR friends say many of their professors are the authors of all the major texts and articles they learn about… but I digress. From my experience talking with students from Europe, a lot of them take gap-years where they travel or work before they go to university. Not only are they more mature when they start college, but they have added experiences that are hard to come by once they graduate. Consider this your gap-year just with more studying!
4. Makes you really appreciate home
Distance makes the heart grow fonder. I’m not going to sugar coat this, it can be really hard to miss holidays, birthdays, and important events back home (I just had to spend Easter in the library – how fun!). I was never so excited to spend a month at home at Holy Cross as I was when I boarded my plane en route to JFK. A whole month! Being home! With my family! And friends!!! It sounded like a dream. I realized that although I went to school in another state, I never was truly away. At HC, my clothes aren’t even fully unpacked by the time I am repacking for October break. Every time I walk through the door when a break begins, my dad jokes, “You’re home all the time! What am I paying for??” (A joke – obviously. He loves when I’m home and sometimes begs me to visit on weekends :-] ). Thanksgiving break. Christmas break. Spring Break. Easter Break. I WAS ALWAYS HOME! Now we are an ocean away and our time together is virtual. And that’s ok! I’ve learned to adjust instead of feeling melancholy, because in a few months I’ll see photos of the new crop of juniors studying here and I’ll feel that FOMO all over again. Only this FOMO will be harder to cure.
5. Becoming engrained into the community
As I said in one of my first posts, I felt like I finally “made it” when someone asked me for directions. This person thought I looked like I knew my way around well enough that I could help her, which is a huge compliment. That was October. Now it’s May. I know most of the shortcuts to class, what time to avoid the Pret lunch rush, and the best section of the library to sit in when you don’t want to be seen (third floor silent section bar stools facing the ocean). Casey mentioned that after 9 months of being in the U.K. it will be weird to see cars drive on the right side of the road again. After 21 years of living in the States and 4+ of them driving on the roads, this small cultural shift has affected her more than she expected. You need to have a non-study abroad mentality when you’re here longer than a semester. You go here full time, act like it. Make conversation with people who work in your building, get to know them. Habituate a coffee shop you love until they remember your order by heart. Buy a school sweatshirt and wear it proudly.
6. You really ~change~ abroad
I know, I know. The classic study abroad phrase everyone loves to hate. “I found myself abroad!” “I really changed after my time studying abroad!” Many people will respond with a strained smile and feigned enthusiasm. Deep down they’re really thinking, Really? Going out 5 times a week and jetting to some glitzy destination really changed you? There is some merit to that idea, but what a lot of people who study abroad don’t like to indulge in is the less than glamorous side of their time away. Like life in general, your semester or year culminates much deeper than what is shown on the filtered moments of Instagram. No one wants to hear about how frustrating it can be trying to keep up with conversations when you’re still not fluent in the language, or how you needed to keep to a strict budget for the first time in your life. Even the little things like different currency or social customs of the area find a way to become ingrained into the way you behave. The longer you are inundated with these changes, the longer it will take to shake them. So maybe you won’t hop off the plane inspired to be the next Gandhi or Elon Musk, but there are experiences and lessons you can only gain from studying abroad that you will carry with you for the rest of your life.
7. When else in your life can you do this?
Once college is over we are thrust into the abyss of being an adult *dun dun dun*. Not everyone has the luxury of taking a gap between getting a job or starting grad school. You have the opportunity now, what’s stopping you?
8. You won’t regret it.
Point blank. You won’t. I’ve never met anyone or heard second-hand that they wish they didn’t stay for the year and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
I hope this has shined a light on the option of studying abroad for the year. I could have never predicted what this year has done for me in all spheres of my life – emotionally, physically, mentally, socially, spiritually. As I am aware that this option is not for everyone, given the opportunity I feel inclined to express what it can do for people who are curious. If have not convinced you or swayed you a little bit, let me leave you with the words of Kelly Clarkson to inspire you:
“I’ll make a wish, take a chance, make a change, and breakaway”
Bridgette Dagher '18