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Eleven Lessons I Learned On My Year Abroad

This is the first year that UoB has expanded the opportunity to study abroad to almost all courses and disciplines, and, having just returned from my year abroad studying in the United States, and at the risk of sounding a little bit too much like a travel wanker, you REALLY SHOULD DO IT. Here I share some of the unexpected lessons that I learned during what was, undoubtedly, the most incredible experience of my life:

1. If you want to take him with you…Be sure about it.

Without a doubt, this is the question most people ask me about my year abroad, and what people seem to be most worried about. My only advice is that if you’re not one hundred per cent secure in the relationship, don’t do it. No one wants to spend their year abroad constantly texting or on Skype, worrying about home. I know couples who have lasted the distance and some who didn’t, but whatever you decide to do, you’ll need to give each other space. And it takes a lot of faith in someone to do that.

2. Never take the British winter for granted

Complaining about it is pretty much the only thing that unites us Britons, but living in the north-east United States made me really appreciate what we’ve got back home. Although the summers were hot, beautiful and far more predictable than the ones we’re graced with in the UK, weathering (pardon the pun) a hurricane and a blizzard all in one season really opened my eyes. Yes, we may have to put up with near constant drizzle in England, but at least it doesn’t get so cold that the skin of your hand flakes off and walking to class turns in to a survival mission.

3. It’s good to be different

It’s impossible to underestimate the currency that an accent holds in the United States. They LOVE you. And while the constant ‘OMG, where are you from?!?!’s can get a little tiring, there sure is no easier way to make friends. Be proud of your uniqueness, it’s what makes you interesting.

4. Always say yes

This is the one piece of advice that my best friend gave to me before leaving, and it stuck with me much more than he or I could ever have anticipated. And, if I had to choose one thing, I’d say that this key piece of advice is what shaped my year abroad beyond anything else. Never say no, get involved in everything, no matter how crazy it seems – sure, you’ll have some questionable experiences, but this is a sure-fire way to leave you with memories that you’ll never forget.

5. Never underestimate the importance of a surrogate family

The truth is that spending an entire year away from your friends, family, and the life that you’ve spent years building is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. But don’t underestimate the importance of finding a surrogate while you’re out there: those that you bump into at orientation or cling to on a drunken night out will become your family. They will be the ones who listen to you moan when the time difference means you can’t talk to those back home; who will bring you food from the dining hall when you’re sick; who will take you to bed when you can no longer stand up; who will give you a cuddle when you can’t hug your mum; who will feel like they know all your friends and family before actually meeting them because they’ve listened to you talk. Don’t underestimate these people, because after just a year together you will feel like you’ve known them your entire life. And, hopefully, they’ll stick around once you’re back home, too.

6. Travel, travel, travel

You may never again get such a great experience to see parts of the world you never expected to. Take advantage of cheap motels and dodgy overnight buses and travel wherever you can. Think of all the stories you’ll have to tell at parties for years to come: that time you spent New Years Eve seeing too many boobs on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the time you nearly got shot in Atlanta, the time you were accosted by bed bugs at a hostel in Charleston…

7. Don’t judge people

It happens, we’re human. If someone had told me a year and a half ago that I would now count a group of rowdy Irish lads who wet the bed every time they’ve been drinking, a Taiwanese computer geek with a plait that stretches down to his backside with a penchant for Disney movies, or a super-politically-active gay guy who passionately protests for abortion rights among my best friends, I’d have thought you’d have been joking. And don’t get me wrong; I probably judged each and every one of them when we first met. However, I soon learned that judging people for their first impressions and writing them off immediately is a massive waste of time. You’re going to meet all kinds of crazy people from all over the world, who will open up your eyes to new perspectives and new experiences – don’t deny yourself this by being too judgemental.

8. Keep your friendships strong

Don’t forget those who are important to you while you’re out there. While it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of studying abroad and your friends should be understanding to the fact that you won’t always be on the other end of a telephone, don’t forget the people who made up your life before you studied abroad, because they will be the people you’re coming home to. You still need to be there for the ones you love, even if it is over Skype rather than over a cup of tea. Continue to work on these relationships and they’ll be even stronger when you  return. Who else is going to get you out of those inescapable post-year abroad blues?

 

9. School spirit actually is a thing

Coming from a country known for its sarcasm, lack of patriotism and lack of enthusiasm, it was a little overwhelming to be thrown into an American college where everyone wears their school logo on their chest and hearing the school chant everywhere you go is pretty much normal. But if you submerge yourself in this culture, you’re guaranteed to get a uniquely American experience that is unrivalled at home – you’ll find yourself screaming your heart out when your team is two points down with three seconds to the buzzer, or rubbing the school mascot’s nose for good luck, and you’ll have a much richer experience for it.

10. Learn to love where you come from

Funnily enough, spending a year submerged in a totally different culture made me appreciate my home more than ever, and added an extra element of sweetness to the bittersweet feelings of returning. Be proud of where you’re from, and the people you meet will feel it too. While I fell in love with pretty much everything about the United States, I have never been more happy to see rolling fields, endless sheep, roads blocked by tractors and horse shit, and the murky waters of the Severn river than when returning to the south-west for the first time in a year.

11. Don’t be scared of the future

I spent the preceding years and months feeling a dizzying combination of excitement but mainly terror about my year abroad. But it turned out to be the very best experience of my life (so far). So while I’m chugging through my fourth and final year at university, weathering the anxiety and stress of essays, exams and multiple dissertations, with the looming fear of future unemployment hanging over my head, I make a conscious effort not to be scared. Because everything will be fine. And even if it’s not, worrying about it certainly won’t help. 

 

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jennakirby

Birmingham

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