The Lowdown: Studying abroad

Former exchange student Mikhaila Friel reveals everything you’ll learn while studying abroad.

How to Face Your Fears

This time last year, I had just been accepted to study abroad in the US. This was the most exciting thing to ever happen to me – but also the scariest. I had never felt these two emotions at once before, and I have to admit, I let the scary take over.

As eager as I was to start my American adventure, I also felt weighed down with the responsibility that came with it. Paperwork… insurance… budgeting… need I say more?

But please, if you’re thinking about studying abroad, don’t let these “grown up” things phase you.

I felt like I was bound to make a mistake, and you know what? I did. I got lost on my way home from class. The first time I used an American washing machine, I called my dad for help. Even shopping for bed sheets gave me a mini panic attack.

In my head, I was a failure because I was scared. Scared to get on a plane myself. Scared to live away from my family. Scared to… be an adult?

But you see, these little worries were just that – worries. They’re inside our heads. They’re things I’d eventually have to deal with anyway, even if I was just moving to Edinburgh – so why not deal with them from across the pond?

How to Adapt

Now I’ve realized that it’s OK to make mistakes. And it’s OK to be scared. This doesn’t make you a failure, but far from it – it proves that you’re trying.

And if you’re anything like me, this will be something you’re excited to try… but you’re scared that you’re not ready yet.

Really, is anybody ever ready? I wasn’t ready to study abroad – but I tried it anyway. And as a result, I gained the best experience of my entire life.

Once you’ve studied abroad, you’ll feel like there’s nothing you can’t do; nowhere you can’t live – and it’s true! You’ll be able to adapt to just about any lifestyle. You just have to take that first step.

How to be Independent

When my feet finally landed on American soil, I felt a wave of relief wash over me: I had made it.

This is where being a Scottish student becomes handy. If you’re thinking of studying abroad and are unsure of how to handle the costs, remember that SAAS provide loans to any full-time student born in Scotland.

As well as loans, most universities have some sort of scholarship programme put in place. Make sure to do your research – there’s probably more help available than you think.

In my case, I was one of the 70 students at Strathclyde University to be awarded a £500 international study bursary. This paid for my flights, which meant I could save my extra cash for travelling!

I was able to visit the likes of Philadelphia, New Jersey, NYC, and Washington DC – but this also meant arranging my own travel and accommodation plans. At first, this idea was intimidating. When arranging youth hostels and train tickets, I would phone my parents to ask their opinion on things.

But then, the more practice I got at it, the more I learned to trust my own decisions. I would phone my parents to tell them my plans rather than to ask what they thought. I trusted my knowledge of this strange new country; I trusted my intuition. And most of all, I trusted that finally, I was becoming the person I was meant to be.

How to Make Friends

The one thing everyone told me before going on exchange is that I would make friends for life. If I’m being frank, I wasn’t too concerned about this. I already had perfectly good friends back home, thank you very much. As long as I got to travel, it didn’t matter who came along for the journey.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

If there’s one thing I learned from studying abroad, it’s that there’s no limit to human kindness. I think most foreign students are treated this way, just because they’re new and interesting, but it was especially the case in America. I was never lacking for friends. If my neighbours weren’t knocking on my door, then one of my classmates was offering to show me around campus. I got asked all sorts of questions about the UK, and was taught all about the USA in return.

Now, if I hadn’t been willing to meet the other students half-way, I wouldn’t have met my best friends.

Getting out of your comfort zone is key. Go to that party. Talk to that classmate. Try something new. Go up to a group of strangers and just talk – your exotic accent will do the work for you. No one knows you here, so what do you have to lose? Take a chance.

These people will become your family. Think about it: you’re not sitting down to dinner with your parents anymore. You’re not going to your siblings for advice. So who fills the gap?

I’ve been back in Scotland for three months now, and I still talk to my study abroad friends every day. In fact, we’re planning our next holiday together, only this time, it’s on my side of the pond.

I may not be studying abroad anymore; but from fearlessness to friendship, the souvenirs I collected along the way will last me a lifetime.

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