By Byul Ryan-Im
Before you go:
Learn the lingo
It may seem obvious but if you’re not a languages student learning the basics of your destination’s language will help relieve some of the initial moving in difficulties. You needn’t buy up the entire Waterstone’s supply of ‘Cantonese for Dummies’, but do make an effort to know the most important phrases. Contact your destination’s University society if there is one and get the students to teach you a thing or two. There are also plenty of free language-learning podcasts and YouTube channels around, so you can plug in your earphones and please fellow passengers on the X12 with exclamations of “Tienes la cara como una nevera por detrás” (ask the Spanish students about that one).
Research the typical cost of student living in your destination. Melbourne might have you living off reduced cans of beans for a year whilst China could offer you a life of (comparative) luxury. Have a look at what grants and loans are available and what you can get from Student Finance. There’s a generous amount on offer if you know where to look but don’t expect it to fall into your lap if you don’t seek it out and apply for it.
Keep an eye on your final year
Okay, so I know you won’t want to think about coming back before you’ve even left, but it’s a good idea to do some final year prep before you head to Heathrow. Firstly: the dreaded D word. Though it pains me to say it, whilst you’re having a fabulous time abroad your course mates back home will be getting dissertation advice and snapping up the friendliest supervisors. So be on the lookout for emails in your final term abroad and you’ll be laughing come October.
Second: accommodation. For most it’s easiest to move back into halls for the final year as you won’t be around to house hunt or negotiate with landlords. If you are set on living out, though, you’ll need to organise housemates and either shop around before you leave, or trust your future housemates enough to find a good place for you.
Set up a support network
One of the few grievances of taking a year abroad is that many of the friends you made as freshers will have graduated (I know, scary right?!) and won’t be there when you return. It’s therefore a good idea to make exchange buddies before you leave, so you won’t feel like a total loner in that final stretch to the graduation finishing line. They’re also an absolute necessity for when you come back, bursting with incredible memories and anecdotes to tell which no one else quite ‘gets’.
No matter how gorgeous the beach is, how sparkling the snow or how ambrosial the cuisine, there will be times when it all gets a bit too overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be a pack of Earl Grey, but bring something from home to keep you going through the rare but inevitable times when the culture shock is a bit too much.
Whilst you’re there:
Don’t fall into the all-too-easy trap of studying in the library from dawn till dusk (as if!). Your exchange credits may or may not contribute to your final degree but either way try to involve yourself in university societies, especially ones you’d be unlikely to find back home, as a way to make local friends, experience more of the culture and perhaps acquire a new and very impressive party trick.
Go for the local modules
Arts and politics students in particular should make the most of the different cultural approach to familiar subjects. Study Buddhism, Herbal Medicine, or Maori. Don’t cross the globe to sit in a lecture hall learning exactly the same things you would back home.
Have fishballs for breakfast
So maybe not on the very first day, but don’t reject cultural oddities you may initially not want to touch with a bargepole. Dive in and get local friends to take you out and show you what it’s like to be a regular citizen in your new home. You may well develop a love of frog’s legs or, like me, come home craving rice and kimchi (fermented cabbage) for breakfast.
Keep a diary
It needn’t be an Anne Frank epic; travel blogging online is a cinch nowadays and you can choose to make it public or private – check out travelblog.org, for example. You don’t have to write at all if that’s not for you: keep a vlog, record memories on a voice recorder or on your phone or upload photos onto a photo-based blogging site. However you detail your memories, though, make sure they are somehow backed up; there’s nothing worse than riding an elephant or summiting the “Roof of Indochina” and having no pictures to prove it! (I know, I learned the hard way…).
So you’ve flown halfway across the world and there are fabulous destinations on your doorstep, but after the initial few weeks of “oh my God look at that amazing flower/insect/man playing the banjo”, it is surprisingly easy to fall into a boring routine. Try to remember where you are and investigate more than the campus or local vicinity. Explore a new place in the guidebooks each weekend, and don’t forget about travelling beyond the borders too. National holidays and, ahem, ‘reading weeks’ are a good opportunity to visit a neighbouring country. If you’re based in Hong Kong like I was, a weekend in Macau is a mere boat ride away, and flights to South East Asia are a fraction of the price of a roundtrip from the UK.
Photographs: Byul Ryan-Im