I’ve spent the past four months studying abroad as an exchange student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Everyone who’s ever studied abroad would probably agree that the experience is terrifying, exhilarating, and utterly unique. It’s been the greatest adventure of my life so far, and I’ll forever be grateful for the opportunity. It’s changed the way I look at the world, and it’s changed me.
While I’m not returning home just yet, I’m all finished with finals and returned from my last major trip. With a little more free time on my hands, I’ve started reflecting on how much I’ve grown and how I want to spend my final weeks in Scotland. Below, I compiled some of my favorite stories, bits of advice, and reflections from the experience.
1) I learned how to travel alone
Back in January, I was supposed to arrive in Edinburgh early in the morning after an overnight (red-eye) flight. It was the first time I’d ever flown alone, and I was absolutely terrified. I hadn’t flown with my family since I was fifteen, and I had no idea how to navigate an airport — especially not a huge one like JFK. I Googled all kinds of stupid questions about what I could bring with me and the difference between checked bags and carry-ons.
Long story short, my flight was delayed multiple times because of lightning and a problem with the luggage. The entire flight was basically one long anxiety attack, and I didn’t sleep at all. With the five-hour time difference also pushing me ahead, I arrived in Edinburgh much later in the day than I expected. I was exhausted, disoriented, and utterly alone. I didn’t realize that the bus system in Edinburgh is excellent (I’ll be framing my Young Scot card when I get home), so I spent way too much money on a taxi into the city.
2) I realized flats Are Not like american apartments
When I finally reached my flat and lugged my suitcases up four flights of stairs, I discovered that the bedding I ordered ahead of time didn’t come in. The bedroom was completely empty, except for a mattress and a lamp that didn’t work. Motion detectors turned the hallway and kitchen lights on and off, the hot water needed to be turned on manually for each shower, and the electrical outlets also had a switch. All these practices are sustainable and I appreciate them now, but my living situation felt scary and unfamiliar at first.
That first night, I wanted to get dinner, but my international cell phone plan stopped working and I was afraid of getting lost without my GPS. And it was too late for me to find an open store that carried bedding. I spent that night starving, crying, and shivering. I slept without any pillows, sheets, or blankets and used my towels and coat to keep myself warm. The bedroom heater wasn’t working, so it was absolutely freezing. I wanted to leave and was convinced there was no way I would last the next few months. Looking back, I want to laugh at myself, but moving to a new country with no friends or family is terrifying! I’m proud to say that I adjusted quickly, and eventually I realized that I never wanted to leave Europe at all.
3) My relationship with food changed
In the United Kingdom, it’s very hard to find a supermarket that looks like one from the United States. Grocery stores are smaller, with virtually no freezer section, and all the food is fresh and expires in a few days. It’s also hard to find junk food, and any snacks come in portions so small it doesn’t feel worth buying them. For a while, I remember thinking that I was going to starve and that there was no way I could survive without “real” grocery stores like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, etc. I’m a vegetarian and vegan-ish, so I basically survived by stocking up on frozen fruit, frozen vegetables, and canned beans back home.
In the end, I ended up trying a ton of new foods (English breakfast, anyone?) and doing a lot more cooking with fresh foods. I’m a tea drinker now (no more coffee addiction or caffeine withdrawals), and porridge is my best friend for breakfast. I actually look forward to walking into Sainsbury’s on my way home from class or the library and choosing, that day, what I’m going to cook for dinner. I spend way less on groceries because I shop multiple times a week and only buy what I need. Overall, the experience is much less wasteful.
4) my fitness routine improved
Throughout my semesters at UConn, I’ve been dedicated to weightlifting at the Rec Center. I had a specific rotation, and I would freak out if I missed one of my workouts, which set off my whole week. I obsessed over increasing my PRs and growing muscles. I love lifting — I really do. It was a great, healthy alternative to my former relationship with exercise. But I realized that it’s not the only form of movement, and there are other ways to stay in shape.
While I didn’t like the lifting areas at the University of Edinburgh gym, I discovered that they offered amazing workout classes. I take body balance (a mixture of pilates, yoga, and Tai Chi) and barre (a ballet-inspired full body workout) multiple times a week, and they’ve absolutely changed the way I approach fitness. With weightlifting, goals can feel very shallow — based on numbers or physical appearance — and you aren’t moving your body much.
My workout classes have both helped heal my inner child (I was a competitive dancer) and increased my strength, flexibility, and overall wellbeing so much. I look forward to the meditation at the end of each class and have learned to truly appreciate my body and myself. On top of the classes, I’ve incorprated hiking and lots of walking outdoors into my routine.
5) I got over materialism and public EMBARRASSMENT fast
I didn’t realize how defined I felt by my things (products, clothes, makeup, hair tools) and my appearance until I moved to Scotland with only one big suitcase and a small carry-on. For a while, I felt so ugly re-wearing the same clothes all the time and not having my curling wand or my rollers to blowout my hair every week. Eventually, I realized that I was living in a big city where absolutely no one was paying attention to what I looked like. I built the courage to do little things like stop wearing makeup, leave my hair natural, and quit my shopping addiction. Overall, I think I’ve become a lot kinder to myself and have become aware of the trappings of materialism. We really don’t need as many things as we think we do. And besides, it’s bad for the environment.
Another important marker of change for me involves the idea of public embarrassment. In the beginning, I didn’t speak in class because I knew my accent made me stand out and there were so many things I wasn’t sure about. Do people raise their hands here or just talk out? Why does no one ever get up to use the bathroom in a two hour lecture? Do I need to ask? Once I started traveling to other countries, like Italy and France, I realized I could never feel embarrassed in the UK or US again because at least I spoke the same language as everyone else. If I could survive Paris with my Duolingo understanding of French, I could survive anything.
There are a million more things I could talk about, like the difference between UK and US Netflix, fluffy Highland cows, the feeling of walking by a ginormous castle every day on my way to class, and the hurdle of trying to flirt with British or Scottish guys when it’s loud in a pub and we can’t understand a single word the other is saying because of the accents. I love Scotland, and I’ve had so much fun these past few months.
Studying abroad helped me cleanse from social media, learn the value of privacy and inner peace, grow in confidence, and meet people from all over the world. I already know I won’t be able to stop talking about my experience when I get home. My apologies in advance! If you have the opportunity to study abroad, do it. You’re stronger than you know, and the confidence and sense of accomplishment that comes from making it on your own is something no one else can ever take away from you.