It is, I think, a universally acknowledged truth that the older you get, the faster time passes. Someone told me it’s something to do with proportions – one year equals a lesser percentage of your life as your life gets longer etc, or something similar. If I knew how that sort of thing worked, I would be studying maths, not law.
However, even given this proportional increase in the speed of time, I don’t think time will ever fly by quite as fast as it has this past year.
Since September I have been studying in Ghent, Belgium and, without wishing to sound like a stereotypical study abroad student (heads up: I’m about to sound just like a stereotypical study abroad student), it has quite possibly been the best experience of my life.
That isn’t to say it hasn’t been challenging, of course. On the morning of the move it took me about 3 minutes from leaving my parents at security at Edinburgh airport to start feeling that I was vastly underprepared – there was no way I could do this, I had no life skills, I could barely even fry an egg for God’s sake, who decided I was qualified enough to move to a foreign country?
Within the first couple of days I had successfully burned a can of soup (no mean feat, I assure you), gotten lost more times than I care to write and still felt my stomach drop every time someone spoke Dutch or French to me.
I had also, however, made an amazing group of friends, gotten an opportunity to explore some of the gorgeous city I was in and had decorated my room to the point where it was Pinterest-worthy.
So. Definitely not all bad.
I very quickly learned that there is no qualification for this sort of thing. You’ve just got to learn to take it as it comes and adapt. If I’m being honest, that’s half the fun of it.
Take the language barrier, for example. When I arrived in Belgium I didn’t speak a lick of Dutch, and my French was pretty much limited to bonjour, merci and j’ai besion d’un piolet (a phrase which, as of yet, hasn’t come in handy). However, the university was so supportive, offering subsidised classes in Dutch and encouraging interactions between Dutch-speaking students and exchange students through language cafes and a buddy system. Fast forward to now, and while I’m by no means fluent, I can certainly hold a conversation and get my point across without too many problems.
One of the fantastic things about study abroad is the amount of other international students that surround you, representing a wide range of cultures and backgrounds. You’re never short of someone to talk to and there’s always something going on – a themed party to attend, an international dinner to use as a substitute for cooking. There is an amazing sense of camaraderie, and everyone helps each other out. You’re guaranteed to find someone whose interests match yours.
Once you’ve met these amazing people, what better way to solidify your friendship than by going travelling? I have been very lucky with Ghent – it’s right in the middle of everything, and the Netherlands, Germany, France and London are all easily accessible by train and bus within just a couple of hours. However, wherever you end up, there will always be things to go and see, and new areas to explore. Think about it – when will these things ever be so easily accessible to you again?
Depending on where you go, you may well find that university work takes up a lot of time – this was certainly the case for me, especially this semester. This is to be expected at the end of the day, you are there as part of your law degree! However, putting in the effort to take trips is really worth it. Ultimately, it’s those memories that will last a lifetime – if you spend all your time cooped up in your room studying, there will have been little point in going abroad at all.
There is no doubt in my mind that while this experience has been insanely rewarding, it has also been a major learning curve. So, to try and keep you from feeling quite as underprepared as I did at the beginning of my year abroad, I’ve put together three crucial things to remember to help you on your way.
- Socialise. You will meet so many amazing people on study abroad, and each one will have different stories to tell and different points of view to offer. I know that it can be hard to try and be social all the time, but I promise it’s definitely worth it to at least do a couple of things a week – once you find your people you definitely won’t regret it.
- Travel. As I say, there will never be a better chance to see places you’ve never seen before and experience a wide range of different cultures. Take as many opportunities as you can to move around – the more you move, the more stories you’ll have.
- Just go with it. Things are probably going to a bit wrong at some point. A rent payment won’t go through on time, you’ll get a puncture on the way to an exam and have to run the rest of the way, or you’ll get the wrong train and end up in the middle of nowhere armed with only the dregs of a bag of crisps and 12% battery on your phone. The big thing is not to panic. Keep a cool head and recognise that everything can be sorted. Put the mistakes down to experience and laugh the bad days off. If you let it, studying abroad can change your entire outlook on life and massively increase your confidence. Accept it and go with your gut, and you’ll be fine!
So, those are my top tips, based on mistakes I’ve made and things I’ve learned. Studying abroad has been fantastic, and I can’t believe it’s nearly over. I just hope you have as good a time as I have had!
Best of luck!