Going to study in a foreign country is always a challenge. The thought of leaving everything you know behind to face the uncertainty ahead is daunting. While some students can adapt easily, many do get ‘lost in translation.’
Cultural shock can harm on your study and make the whole experience less enjoyable than expected. As an international student with a fair share of experience in this area (having moved from Vietnam to Ukraine at 9, from Ukraine to Scotland at 17… and now studying in Bristol), I do sympathise with each struggling soul. This guide should make your transition as smooth as possible.
Before you leave:
- Make sure you know the local language. This seems obvious, but you will be surprised to know that in the UK there are many international students who can barely speak English. These students find it harder to communicate and make friends. Even if you are academically bright, poor knowledge of the language will prevent you from excelling in your chosen subject, especially if that subject involves a lot of writing and presentation (e.g. Economics and most Arts subjects). The language barrier will lower your confidence to speak, and with less practice, the problem will only get worse.
- Do not trust everything your travel guide says. Learn some information about the country but not every single fact! Why? Because your experience will probably be very different from what is there in the travel guides (you go there to study, not for a holiday). Some knowledge will help you with local people, but having preconceived ideas about them will most likely increase your cultural shock. You will find out that people are very good at defying stereotypes. I always thought that British people were reserved until I found myself in Scotland. In the end, you will realise that people are different everywhere, and there is no point in trying to impose a supposedly “national” trait on them. It is always more fun when you learn about a culture from your own real experience rather than a book.
- Be prepared. Before you leave the country, make sure you are well-prepared for life in a foreign country. If you need a visa, try to get it as soon as possible. Prepare all the documents you might need, and lastly, do not forget to pack some good memories in your suitcase, such as photos of friends and family.
Once you are there:
- Be sociable and make as many friends as you can. Some international students come to the UK with one thing in mind: study hard for a 1st. While this is certainly important, there are other aspects of university life. Excluding yourself from the society will restrict your ability to learn, make friends, and for other people to learn about you. University years are supposed to be the best time of your life. Some of the people you meet during this time you will probably know for the rest of your life.
- Join student societies. This is the follow-up to the last advice. Student societies are fun and you get to meet lots of new and interesting people. There is such a huge range of societies you can join, not just ethnic or subject societies. You will be able to do something you have never had an opportunity to do before, gaining a lot of new hobbies. Be proactive and you might end up being on the executive committee of one or two societies. Leadership experience will look very good on your CV.
- Do not stick to your diaspora only. Having a language barrier means you will often be more comfortable with people from your home country. There is nothing wrong with finding comfort and support in a new environment; however, this can alienate you from other students. Studying abroad means you get to experience a lot of new things, but you will not be able to do so if you try to make everything similar to what you have at home. Try and find the perfect balance.
- Travel around. After you have adapted to the new studying environment, it is a good idea to visit places around the country. This will spice up your normal daily routines. Also, seeing new places will definitely enrich your cultural experience.
What do other students have to say?
Cheng Zhou (2nd year, Oxford) says:
‘Studying abroad is a mission, a challenge and also a life changing opportunity. That’s why you need to make most out of our experience abroad to know about the culture, people and basically everything which seems different to you. Taking every single chance to explore is the golden advice. I understand it is hard since I went through it myself but the more difficult it is, the greater your individual development will be. Make yourself different tomorrow!’
Martin Christ (2nd year, Warwick) says:
‘In my opinion, there are many things international students ought to do. My greatest advice, however, would be to experience the country you go to as much as possible. This includes making friends with local people, travelling to see both the famous sights and the hidden beauties. There are different ways you can experience the culture. In the UK, you can either go to a pub or see one of Shakespeare’s plays amongst many other things. This is how you can see what the country and its people are really all about. In my opinion, this is where the main difference between classroom learning and going abroad lies. Although it is challenging and uncomfortable to leave one’s comfort zone, it is more than worth it.’