Thinking of attending university outside of the UK? Then this may be of interest to you.

June 7, 2012 6:50 pm

The world is your oyster when it comes to studying abroad

Few people ever actually get the opportunity to live out their childhood dream. However, I am one of those lucky few. Growing up, as a female football player, America was always portrayed as the pinnacle place to play as a female ‘soccer’ star. So you can imagine my delight when, following a trial with a scholarship agency, I was awarded a full scholarship to attend a university in South Carolina. I spent the next year and a half dreaming about my life in the States. Of course, I had my worries as well; what if I wasn’t good enough? What if I didn’t fit in? But there was no way I was going to let those small fears allow me to miss out on an opportunity like this. After all, I thought, even if it isn’t perfect, it’s still a free education, something which is pretty hard to find nowadays.

And now here I am in the summer of 2012, having already completed my Freshman year in South Carolina. To say that the past year has been a rollercoaster of emotions would be an understatement. I suffered from disappointment, frustration (at myself and others) and, worst of all, homesickness. However, I have also made some amazing friends, along with memories to last a lifetime. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to places that I never could have afforded to visit had I gone to university in the UK, and I’ve learnt a lot about American culture, and how it differs from our own. The main purpose of this article is to highlight some of the benefits, as well as the drawbacks, of attending a university in the United States, or outside of the UK in general.

First of all, although you might not like to hear it, I can guarantee you that at some point, you’re going to get homesick. Trust me, I didn’t think I would suffer from it. I’d spent a lot of time away from home before and, because I like to think of myself as a brave, tough teenager, I genuinely didn’t think I would miss home all that much. Oh, how wrong I was! As soon as anything went wrong in soccer, class or life in general, I found myself wanting to call my parents or one of my friends. Here’s another thing you have to take into account, if you’re moving outside of the UK, chances are that you are going to encounter a time difference. So if you, your family and your friends all have busy schedules, it can be somewhat difficult to arrange a time for that Skype call. On average I would probably call home about once a week, so if you can’t go a day without speaking to your family/friends/partner, then, in all honesty, studying outside of the UK might not be the thing for you. And yes, some of you might be thinking that it’s not that different to going to a university on the other side of the country from your hometown. But trust me, there is a difference; after all, we all know that it’s a lot quicker and cheaper to travel within the UK than it is to cross the Atlantic. If you go to America then you’ll probably only be making two trips home each year at most; over Christmas and during the summer.

Another thing that I found when transferring from the UK to the US is that the education system, especially at university, is very different. While in the UK students simply choose one course of study, in the US, universities follow a ‘liberal arts’ curriculum, requiring students to take a number of general education courses. This was very weird for me, having been an A level student in the UK studying four subjects, it didn’t feel right taking classes such as science and maths which I hadn’t encountered since secondary school. Personally, I found it quite frustrating having to take classes like these, as I believe they are rather pointless at this stage in one’s education. However, the benefit of the US system is that it is quite easy to change your major at any time within your first two years of university, without losing too many credits. In the UK, chances are you would have to start all over again, therefore having to pay for another year, as my older brother discovered. Also, the system of testing is different in the US, with exams being given out on a more regular basis (usually at the end of each chapter in the class textbook), as opposed to the UK system where exams tend to only occur at the end of a semester or entire year. Personally, I have found the US system a lot easier and have managed to get top grades in all my classes without putting in anywhere near as much effort as I did for my A levels. However, I do think that the US system is beneficial in that it really encourages you to actually read the information in your textbook, rather than just browsing through.

The higher education systems in the US and the UK differ greatly

Another thing to mention, although it may sound obvious, is the culture shock that you are likely to encounter. Obviously, this is going to vary depending on the area of the US (or world) that you move to. For me, when I arrived in the city where my university is located, I was pretty shocked. This was clearly a fairly poverty stricken area of the States, with a lot of run-down buildings and very few forms of entertainment available in the local area. To say that the location of my university is not ideal would be an understatement. However, it didn’t take long for me to realise that you can make your own fun on campus. From water fights and pick up soccer games to all night parties and late night drives to get food, I definitely had fun in my first year in the States. What’s more, my membership of the soccer team and the university’s Honors College (for students on academic scholarships), was very beneficial to me in making friends at the university. One thing I would say, however, is that if you are not going to another country as part of a sports team or another organisation that will allow you to get to know people at your university, then it will probably be quite daunting. Not only will you have to deal with the culture shock and the ordeal of moving to a new country, but you will also have to cope with the stress of trying to make new friends; although, one thing I can tell you is, especially in the States, that British accent of yours will be very beneficial to you when trying to make conversation with new people. Overall, although all of this might seem quite frightening (it definitely did to me), more likely than not you will soon find a group of friends who will help you settle in. I know for a fact that in just this first year, I’ve already made some lifelong friends, and I hope to find some more in my three remaining years.

One thing that I have learnt over the past year is that it really is not so much about what you know, but more about who you know. What many students fail to realise is that one of the most important things they can do during their university career is to build connections. Positive connections can lead to internship offers, job opportunities and much more. So my advice to any student, regardless of where you are studying, is to be as active as you can on campus, join as many clubs and societies as possible and make your name known around campus. This is one of the great advantages of gaining an international education. Not only will it help you stand out from the crowd in your chosen career, but it will also allow you to build contacts all over the world; even if the only thing you end up actually using them for is a cheap holiday in the future.

This brings me to another benefit: travelling opportunities. If, like me, you love to explore new places, then this is definitely a very cheap way of doing it. Already in my first year I have been to Florida twice, one time just having to pay for my share of the gas money, the other time a small amount for accommodation as well. Either way, I was able to visit the ‘sunshine state’ twice, for a fraction of the cost I would have to pay to visit from home. What’s more, I have made friends from States all over America, so anytime I want to explore somewhere new, all I have to do is make a few arrangements and I’m there. My list for next year includes New York, California and Canada.

Experiences such as studying abroad can lead to lifelong friendships and can help create connections

Finally, last but not least, I couldn’t write an article about moving away from Britain without mentioning the weather. Due to my decision to move to one of the Southern States, I have certainly revelled in the almost all-year-round summer. For an outdoorsy person like me, this is a great bonus, and I’m not complaining about the tan I’ve gained either.

As can be seen, the experience of attending a university outside of the UK can be a somewhat daunting leap into the unknown. However, if you go in with a positive attitude, ready to make new friends, experience new things and travel new places, while also realising that you are going to face some challenges along the way, then this is probably one of the best moves that you could ever make. Despite the hiccups that have occurred along the way, I know that I wouldn’t change my American experience for the world.

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