When thinking of impulse decisions, you usually picture buying an item you can’t afford or getting a tattoo future-you will totally regret. My impulse decision was flying over 4,000 miles to a country I had never been to and living there for six months.
Eight months ago, I started my study abroad trip to England. My application and visa were approved sooner than I anticipated, which left plenty of room to plan my trip. I could look up dorms (I mean flats), research academic clubs, find popular places for students to hang out…
Except I didn't. In fact, I was so unprepared when I got to England that the first time I Googled my new town was when I had just finished unpacking my luggage. I admit that I’m the queen of procrastination, but where I set myself up for failure wasn’t in the form of not knowing my bus routes or where the coffee shops were.
I was completely unprepared to be the “exchange student.”
It never occurred to me that I would stand out. Going to the UCF with 64,000 other students, I’m used to meeting people who are from other countries (or exchange students themselves). More noticeably, I assumed England and the United States would be almost identical. Besides our accents, how different could we really be?
Before you read on, I want to say that if you’re thinking about studying abroad in England, I absolutely encourage you to do so! My study abroad experience was the most eye-opening, culture-expanding six months I’ve ever had. However, there are five lessons I wish someone had taught me before I made my trek across the pond. It turns out that being an American in Europe had its own unique learning curve, and I hope you catch on from this article faster than I had to learn once I arrived abroad.
1. Most people have strong opinions about Americans
I can’t count on my fingers the number of times someone felt emboldened enough to say something negative about the United States in front of me. I’m not talking about our American accents or slang, but full-on tangents about politics.
On a night out with friends, two men stopped me on the street because they heard my accent and wanted to say they didn’t like America. I was told multiple times during conversations that America was easy to make fun of, that America didn’t know what they were doing politically, that the citizens were lazy and uneducated. I even had someone tell me that Andy Serkis’s character in “Black Panther” was acting as a “typical American” when he betrayed his team, even though the character was English. To my face.
Now, I get it. I don’t even agree with the state of our government. But I realized there was a difference between listening to others’ opinions on American politics versus being told to your face in a foreign country that they find Americans deplorable.
Sometimes it pushed me away from the groups I spent time with. I’ve never passed a law or ran for office, but suddenly I felt responsible for defending myself and home. And when you’re living somewhere far away from anyone like you, being told that you’re hated has an extra sting to it.
If you’re planning to go to Europe as an American, fully expect to be questioned about your personal politics. And understand that when people flat out say they hate Americans, they aren’t talking about you specifically.
According to my British friends, a lot of times it was their sense of humor. Their sarcasm is different than ours. Or they didn’t think talking bad about the United States would personally hurt me. Learn to take it with a grain of salt, but not be afraid to speak up if it bothers you.
2. Culture shock is real – and it’s stronger than you expect
Before studying abroad, I had to take an online course about culture shock. Culture shock is a state of anxiety experienced by someone entering a new country. There are multiple stages of culture shock, the first being a “honeymoon stage” where everything new is exciting and better than your home country. About two months into your trip, the “frustration stage” sets in. This usually lasts a month, and constantly triggers feelings of anger and isolation at minor inconveniences.
You probably just took that paragraph with a grain of salt. Pay attention. This is the hardest part about studying abroad.
Culture shock is real, and it can almost be debilitating. Things you found “new” now feel “different” in an extremely uncomfortable way. I personally was on the verge of a meltdown at Starbucks because I couldn’t find the correct change in English currency. None of the buildings in my town had air conditioning, and as a Floridian, I couldn’t get comfortable without it. I kept forgetting my outlet adapter and couldn’t charge my phone when I went to class. I always felt around for light switches in the bathroom forgetting they were on the outsides of the doors.
Don’t get me started about people correcting the way I spoke. I felt ridiculous using English slang. My friends would roast me when I said “elevator” instead of “lift” or “garage” instead of “car park.” Just when I got the hang of English phrases, my friends back home would laugh when I’d slip in “I just can’t be bothered” or say I took the “underground” in London.
The best thing I ever did to combat culture shock was talk about it with other exchange students. A group of international girls and I threw a wine night for each other and quickly realized we all were anxious about the same things. Sharing a bottle of chardonnay and talking it out alleviated my culture shock nearly overnight. We all missed different things, and it was fun to hear what my other European, non-American friends longed for back at home.
3. Resist the temptation to cling to other Americans
I wasn’t the only American in the exchange program. There were obviously other students from my college, but several from other states across the U.S. I got on immediately with the English students in my class (known as your ‘seminar group’), but when I heard an American accent over the crowd, I was hit with a giant wave of calm. When speaking to other Americans, it was so easy to talk freely with my own slang. Usually, we both had funny “first time” experiences to swap, like visiting a pub or taking the train. And when I was dropped back into an environment with all English students, there was always the urge to bury myself in my phone and continue talking with those Americans.
Don’t do it! You will have traveled so far, and you’ll be with all Americans again in just a few short months. The point of being an exchange student is to experience new cultures. The temptation to surround yourself with likeminded people is always there, but then what was the point of this adventure?
When your group of Americans wants to go out the same night your English friends do, get out of your comfort zone and choose that new experience. I have so many wonderful memories with other international students and the English alike. By choosing to make new friends, I spent afternoons exploring local hang-outs and nights traveling home from a busy day sightseeing in London.
I even came home a bit of a soccer fan, but don’t tell my Pittsburgh parents.
While every American you meet on exchange is also going through the same anxieties as you are, none of you will truly learn the culture unless you immerse yourself in it. That means you’ll need to meet other English people and have unique experiences you won’t find in your home state.
4. Travel as much as you can, but don’t forget to “revise”
The major thing Americans should take advantage of while in Europe is how close all the countries are together. I can drive four hours straight and still be in Florida, or I can hop on a plane from Gatwick Airport and be in Scotland in an hour. And the plane ticket is just £40.
I felt completely spoiled with access to so many countries and cultures. My uni (don’t call campus “college” or you’ll get some weird stares, refer to Lesson #2) had three weeks of spring break. I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself. I ended up traveling around England for a few days with a family friend, which was exciting because it took three trains and four undergrounds to get to her house. Then for the last two weeks, I went to Scotland and Paris because… why not?!
If you’ve saved up the money, take advantage of any free time traveling while tickets won’t be $800 from the states. I knew exchange students who flew to Ireland just for a few days, and others who spent entire weeks in Amsterdam because they finished their online classes early.
However, the one thing I learned from traveling is that time flies. If you’re studying abroad in Europe and making a point to go somewhere new every weekend, you may look up and realize you haven’t been working on assignments. Studying is called “revision” in England, and it’s important to get on those notes and projects.
New adventures are half of the study abroad experience. The other half is actually getting good grades.
5. Study abroad will be the best decision of your life
The first night I moved to England, a family-friend drove me to a small pub near a fishing dock. The front of the pub was covered in nets and bait, and most patrons were fishermen stopping for a pint after work. I sat on the windowsill with a beer next to the fireplace (because let’s face it, it was January and I was freezing my Floridian butt off).
I realized my phone kept connecting to a strange provider, and the word “FRA” popped up where SPRINT usually was. I asked my friend what that meant, and she pointed to the ocean behind us. The only thing I could see outside was the porch lights of the pub and a small, thin line of lights across the water. She told me we were just a little more than twenty miles away from Calais; my phone was connecting to a French cell tower.
I’m not sure why this is one of my favorite memories. It wasn’t the most adventurous, or the most fun. I think it’s because that’s when I realized how big the world was. How close I was to entire cultures of people I never met.
Study abroad will be the best decision of your life. England has populations of almost every European nationality. Cathedrals twice the age of the United States. And you’ll be a short flight away from nations you never dreamed of visiting.
It’s possible to study abroad as an American despite major cultural differences. If you stay respectful of the people around you and open to learning new things, who knows… you may be back across the pond before graduation.
All images provided by the author.