Friday, 13 July 2012

Things I wish I'd known when I first went to study abroad

In my previous post here, I talked about my recent visit to St Johann im Pongau, the village in Austria where I spent my year abroad as part of my German degree.  It's not surprising that this visit has triggered a flood of memories not only about that time but also about other trips I made to German-speaking countries in an effort to learn German.

Although I had some wonderful experiences, and my time abroad most definitely did help me with my German, I do feel that I missed a few opportunities and that there are some things I wish I'd known, especially at the beginning of the year in St Johann.  Maybe some of these things will help you if you are studying a long way from home.
  1. Homesickness is awful, but it's a natural part of adapting to life in a new country.  It's one aspect of culture shock, and if I experienced terrible culture shock living in another European country, I can't imagine how hard it must be for people coming to the UK from China or other distant countries.  What I wish I'd know is that it would pass, and in my case it would have passed much more quickly if I had known that the cure for homesickness is to.... 
  2. Get out of your room and do things!  Even now, I still have a tendency to hide away at home if I'm feeling bad, although I know that mixing with people always makes me feel better.  When I first went to Austria several people at the school where I worked were nice and welcoming, but I was very shy and I didn't really show how much I wanted to make friends.  In those days we didn't have the Internet, and phone calls were really expensive, so I spent hours and hours and hours writing letters to friends and family at home.  It would have been a much better idea to get out and about. If you're part of a class of students, like my new group of students at INTO Manchester, make the most of any activities organised by the college.  If you're feeling great, try to notice anyone in your class who seems homesick or lonely,  and be friendly to them. Maybe you will feel homesick at some point, and a person who has already been through it and is feeling better will be happy to help you the way you helped them. 
  3. Make new friends who don't speak your language.  It's natural when you are homesick to want to spend time with people from your own culture, and I would never say that you should avoid them altogether.  However, don't spend all your time with them.  I spent nearly all my weekends visiting English people in other parts of Austria, and by doing that I missed out on opportunities to do things with Austrians, get to know them better - and practise my German. Before I went to Austria, I was one of the best students in my year at university, but when I got back I was nowhere near the top of my class, especially in Speaking.  The people who had made lots of German and Austrian friends were way, way ahead of me.  If possible, fall in love with a native speaker!  One of my Chinese classmates on my Master's degree course had a British boyfriend - her English really improved very quickly indeed.
  4. Even if you don't have much money, spend as much as you can on experiences you will never forget.  For me, I should have had skiing lessons the minute the first snow arrived.  A friend from my aerobics class tried to teach me to ski, but she wasn't a skiing teacher and she found it hard to understand why I couldn't do it!  I should have invested some money in proper lessons, and then I could have joined the other teachers at school who went skiing every weekend all through the winter. That doesn't really apply to my students in Manchester, but I would still say this: don't spend all your money on clothes and electronics - you can have all those things later in your life - spend your money on experiences - meals with friends, music concerts, films, sports and, most importantly of all, travel.  I did travel quite a lot when I lived in Austria, but not nearly enough - partly because I didn't always have someone to travel with.  I didn't realise that lots and lots of people have amazing journeys on their own - in fact, you are more likely to make new friends if you are travelling alone.  I was so happy when one of my new INTO students emailed me this week asking for advice about travelling while he is here - one of his friends had told him that he should take the opportunity to do this before he gets too busy with his studies, and this is absolutely right.  
One day you will wake up and find that you are 30, or 40, or 50 (yes, honestly, one day you will be this old...) and you will probably have so many responsibilities - a demanding job, a home to pay for and clean, children to bring up and provide for.  It would be terrible to have regrets about not having made the most of your freedom while you had it!

To my new class at INTO: you will never have a better chance to become really, really good at English.  Most of you are Chinese, and I understand how easy it is for you to stick together.  However, there are lots of people at INTO and other colleges in Manchester who are not from China, and they would love to make friends with you. Don't miss this chance to really broaden your horizons.

Have a great weekend :-)


  1. What you're saying is so true. I wish I'd known these things when I was in Chile. It took almost until I left to realise how much I loved it, and if I'd just pushed myself harder in the first few months it would have been amazing!

  2. Hi Julia! I totally see your points! When I fist went to England I didn't feel at my ease anywhere, therefore I didn't make many friends. Those days I made few efforts to encourage myself to explore an "English-speaking reality". Last year I did my best to improve my English. I was aware that three weeks were a very short period of time so I got into the habit of exchanging words with people around. (I did it even with a woman who worked in the open-air market in front of the school!)
    I hope that helped me to make the most of my three-week study holiday:)
    Stefania -Italy-