3 Collegiettes Get Real About Study Abroad

There is absolutely no doubt that studying abroad is an incredible experience—one that everyone should take advantage of. However, you won’t find all the answers to your questions or nitty gritty details in a brochure. We sat down with three Collegiettes (two returned students, and one who is currently abroad) who told us what studying abroad is really like.

Where did you study abroad?

Emma: London, England: my now-favorite place in the entire world.

Lexi: Florence, Italy

Serena: I am currently studying abroad at the University of Cape Town in South Africa!

What aspect of study abroad did/has exceeded your expectations?

Emma: Everything exceeded my expectations. I got to see parts of the world I never dreamed of going to. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Lexi: I got to do and see some amazing things when I was abroad. On the weekends I was on a plane (or on a bus, let’s be real here) heading to a new European city, going out to eat, visiting museums, and seeing shows. Unreal is the only way to describe it, you kind of feel like a celebrity (do celebrities sleep in sketchy hostels for €25 per night? So maybe not a celebrity…)

Serena: Just about everything has exceeded my expectations! If you’re dreaming of new adventures, South Africa is the place you’re looking for. In one day in Cape Town, you can hike what seem like endless mountains, surf clear blue waters, hang out on some of the nicest beaches in the world, explore wine vineyards, shop local markets, enjoy an amazing night life, and experience a beautiful culture. Not to mention some of the world’s most incredible animals live here; I’ve been just inches from lions, elephants, and hippos in the wild. Transportation isn’t expensive, so traveling South Africa and neighboring countries isn’t going to break your bank account. If you’re into food as much as I am, then you won’t be disappointed by the delicious food here. South Africa really has it all.

What aspect of study abroad did/has not lived up to your expectations?

Emma: I participated in a program that was its own institution, meaning I only took classes with American students. While this was an amazing experience and I met so many great friends, it would have been nice to meet and mingle with students from the UK.

Lexi: You think when you go abroad you are instantly going to transform into this fabulous person. While traveling to Paris, and London, and Barcelona on the weekends does make you feel super glam, you’re still you. There are still Friday nights when you are living in this amazing city and you just want to watch Netflix (or was that just me??).

Serena: University of Cape Town (UCT) has consistently been rated the best university in Africa! Classes are a lot more demanding than I originally thought they’d be.

You can’t fully prepare in advance for the cultural shock of adjusting to a new place; you can only discover it along the way. Sometimes it’s easy to forget not everything runs the same as U.S. colleges. The UCT course registration process took two days of waiting in line with hundreds of people for about three hours each day because online registration doesn’t exist for foreign students.

Also, soon enough you’ll start to pick up on the little things. I’ve noticed South Africans do not talk loudly in public, they dress really nice for class everyday (sweatpants on a Monday morning are very rare here), and everything runs a little bit late.

What’s one study abroad reality that no one talks about?

Emma: Everyone thinks of study abroad as a fun, crazy experience where you waste your parent’s money traveling all over and going out way too much. While this is true for some people, the most important thing that happens is that you really get to experience a different culture first-hand. While living in another country for months, you get to understand what it is like to have a different way of life.

Lexi: I definitely don’t think this is everyone’s reality but at the end of my semester abroad, I was SO ready get home. I missed having structure in my life and some sort of routine. Traveling all the time is amazing, but you are so busy it is hard to take care of yourself. I didn’t have time for a normal exercise routine. A lot of the time I was buying my meals mid-transit at highway rest stops. I also really wanted to get my eyebrows done. I guess that is the not-so-glam part of studying abroad.

Serena: You will have major FOMO when all your friends can go out on a random weekday night and you’re stuck writing a paper. Balancing school and social life is tricky to manage when studying abroad, especially since you are so eager to explore.

For South Africa specifically, people barely ever use their cell phones in public. I’ve learned a lot from using my phone less, and being able to observe more. So don’t feel weird when you see your friends in Europe or elsewhere taking a million pictures and snapchats when you can’t. You really get to take in the experience minus the phone and camera.

If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?

Emma: Looking back on my, I loved every second of it. However, I think I would have done a different program. I was lucky enough to have interned abroad while also taking classes (three hours each, which was painful). With this schedule I was busy 9-5 every single day, not including my long commute on the Tube. Sometimes I wish I picked a regular exchange program where I would have had more time to explore the city rather than cramming in all of my sight-seeing on the weekends.

Lexi: I sort of wish I chose an entirely different city (see below) but I’m also really happy with my experience. I’m happy I studied in Italy because it is such a gorgeous country and being there allowed me to see many cities throughout the country. I guess I just wish I could do it twice!

Serena: Be more prepared and understanding of initial confusion. Learn Xhosa (one of the 11 official South African languages, involves a click sound). Pack less. Ask more questions. Journal my experience from the moment I arrived.

Would you go someplace different?

Emma: Not at all. I love every single aspect of London. It would have been interesting to go somewhere I may never get to in life, such as New Zealand or Australia, but I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else.

Lexi: Probably London. It was my favorite trip by far and I think I would have had a ball there. I love big, cosmopolitan cities!

Serena: Absolutely not! South Africa has offered me everything I could ever dream of and more. The adventure here is endless! I also wanted to be able to fully understand and actually be a part of the country I was studying in. Learn the country’s history, observe the culture, and be a respectful and educated citizen.

What is your favorite study abroad memory?

Emma: My favorite study abroad memory in London was on Easter. My roommates, friends and I made a giant brunch smorgasbord and then went on a long walk in Regent’s Park. I go to college somewhat close to home, so I had never missed out on a holiday with my family.  However this day made me feel like I was at home!

Overall though, my favorite memory was when my friends and I were on spring break in Amsterdam. We rented bright yellow bikes (tourist alert!), which was interesting because I hadn’t ridden a bike in probably 5 years. It was the first real warm “springy” day and we biked all over the city including through Vondelpark. The park was filled with happy, similing people and flowers. It felt like something out of a dream.

Lexi: It’s not one specific memory but we had this one little café we loved to post-up at for aperitivo (AKA Italian happy hour + food). When the weather got nice they moved their tables out to the street and my friends and I would sit there and eat/drink/chat/people watch for hours on end. It was the best.

Serena: There are so many! Recently, I was able to travel Swaziland (a country landlocked within South Africa) and Mozambique for spring break, which was the most amazing experience of my life.  

Without a doubt, going on safaris has been a highlight! Also going to braais (similar to cookouts), jols (parties), rugby games, bungee jumping (you HAVE to go!), trying all different types of authentic African foods, and surfing are all some of the coolest experiences I’ve had so far!

South Africa is currently in an interesting time where student power is continuously building countrywide. It’s pretty amazing to be here and watch students in action.

Finally, what piece of advice would you offer someone who is about to start their semester abroad?

Emma: Keep a journal. It doesn’t have to be a diary or something you write a novel in every night. Just write your thoughts, a sight you saw, or something out of the ordinary. It will help you remember your trip better. It’s only been a year, and unfortunately parts of my abroad experience are slowly drifting out of my memory.

Lexi: I could probably sit here for two hours telling you all the mistakes I made and what I did wrong, but I think that’s a part of the experience. You go off to a foreign country by yourself to learn and grow and experience new things. So just get out of your comfort zone and enjoy it!

Serena: Don’t forget about what is happening nationally and locally back home! For example, stay updated on what is going on politically and what changes are happening at UMass. Trust me, it’s easy to make your current life abroad a priority, but remember that you will have to go back in just a few short (but AMAZING) months.

And most importantly, this is your time to explore the world, so don’t let anything hold you back.

All photos courtesy of Emma Crowley, Lexi Sheldon & Serena McMahon