collegiate systems

Studying Abroad: Is It Really a Trip of a Lifetime?

Exciting new people, another culture, different academic environment — all sounds very cool. But wait until you actually get there.

Studying abroad has always given off a glamorous image. People assume that everything about it is smooth sailing; but young people travelling abroad face challenges adults would struggle to overcome. Difficulties begin even before they board their planes, and continue once they land. Studying abroad is not as glitzy as people may assume. It has a dark side.

Finding an apartment abroad can prove a nightmare for domestic students. It’s much worse for international ones. Often, they can’t view an apartment before renting it. The search becomes like a game of Russian roulette; the student takes a risk, and the gamble either pays off with decent living conditions or it doesn’t, in which case money has been wasted and conflicts with landlords arise.

Many students face situations in which their dreams of adventures abroad begin to fall apart before they even arrive at their destinations. Peter Kwiatek, Assistant Director of off-campus housing at Boston College, says international students can end up being duped by landlords. ‘We’ve had situations where [an international] student moved into a place which was uninhabitable; it wasn’t a room zoned to be a bed space. The student was able to find another place with a friend’, but getting back his first and last month’s rent and security deposit was hard.

Finding out about security deposits, finders’ fees, or even the normal cost of hiring a car can be overwhelming for an international student. ‘Moving all the furniture is such a hassle because I don’t drive’, says Daria speaking about her move to BC. ‘Especially when I came to Boston for the first time and I didn’t know anyone. It was hard to find someone who would drive my furniture from place to place, and delivery services are really expensive’. After returning from Russia to the States, she spent the first two years of her college career in California, but then decided to transfer to BC. Not having her family nearby to help her with the moving process, she found it difficult to move her possessions from one place to another. International students don’t just have to worry about the logistics of moving intercontinentally; once at their desired locations, they also have to figure out how to survive in the new place they call home.

Most airlines have strict limits on the amount of luggage allowed on international flights, standardly permitting approximately 23 kilograms. This however is barely enough for a semester abroad for many people, let alone a whole year. This means international students probably won’t bring that much with them.

‘On-campus housing is not really designed for international students because if you get into your apartment there is nothing apart from furniture and a mattress’, says Ester Rudhart from University College Utrecht in the Netherlands, who has come to study at BC for a semester. She adds: ‘So, basically, on the first day if you want to sleep with bedding, and have toilet paper you need to, no matter what time you arrive, start looking for shops where they sell these things. And buy everything, which is a big expense for the first day. There are no cleaning products, and no vacuum cleaner to rent because American students, apparently, bring all that from home. So that was strange that only the bare minimum is supplied’.

The realization that they are no longer children, but adults who have found themselves in a foreign country and must independently untangle the mesh of grievances that can spontaneously arise from the search for an apartment, hits international students pretty quickly.

Trips abroad evoke images of sandy beaches and dangling hammocks on utopian oases where cocktails magically appear. What does not come to mind are the challenges of having to adjust to an entirely new way of life.
Once students arrive, the realization that they are in a completely unfamiliar place hits home. It might as well be Mars than any earthly country, because the reality of absorbing a new culture often does not fit into the expectations international students bring. One example is the erroneous belief that it is easy to interact with people in the US collegiate system. It is difficult not to be influenced by stereotypical portrayals of American students in the media. As a result, international students often end up expecting an endless flow of booze to be pouring from the rims of fiery red Solo cups at frat parties, and think that it’s easy to connect with Americans.

But it takes time to fit in anywhere, especially when settling down to live in a new place involves overcoming cultural boundaries. The social life that every student craves is not instantaneous. International students can find themselves feeling isolated and forming their own social groups to make the adjustment to life in college easier.

‘A huge part of making friends is hanging out with other international students’, says Daria. ‘I do have American friends, but I feel it’s harder for me to make connections because there is some kind of a gap’.

Some of the issues international students can face while adjusting to life abroad may seem trivial, but overcoming them can prove just as challenging as finding a place to live. Getting acquainted with a new academic system is amongst the biggest hurdles.

‘The workload I expected to be less [intense] because that’s the universal perspective that in America the workload is much less than England’, says Jean Arkas (not her real name), a one-year exchange student at BC from Queen Mary University of London. ‘I was warned by professors in England that the workload was going to be easier’.

In fact, the work proves to be more than many international students expect, as was the case for Jean. At her home university she is given more time to do a long academic paper compared to what is expected at BC. She knows that the grades she earns in the United States will be converted to the English grading system. This conversion worries her because committing to one whole year, as opposed to a semester, means that if she does not attain the grades she needs, her overall academic prospects could noticeably suffer when she returns to Queen Mary.

Studying abroad does have its perks, but be warned that challenges will arise and coping with them will take some speedy growing up from any aspiring international student.  

“My first two years at Brown weren’t easy, not because I was bullied or because anyone gave me a particularly hard time, but just because, you know, without the collegiate system … and at Brown everyone does completely different things and very much chooses their own path, which is great, but it’s also much more difficult, too. You’re not with a group of people all the time at one time.” ― Emma Watson

I never know what to say or think when my father talks to me about his experiences working at a historically black college.

I usually end up feeling pretty hurt, since he’s been the recipient of a lot of internalized racism from other POC, even though he is also denied a lot of the same privileges since he is a dark-skinned Latin American immigrant.

Like how his black superiors have told him straight to his face that he will never become an administrator/higher-up despite being head of the engineering department and teaching there for 40+ years because he is not black. (Tbh I’m not 100% sure if this is because of internalized racism, or if its just how the collegiate system works and its out of the administrator’s hands, anyone who can fill me in on this give a heads up!)

Or when a fellow colleague of his (also a POC, of Middle Eastern descent) continued to treat him poorly because he didn’t receive a promotion since they decided to give it to my father instead, and only began talking to him like a human being again because my father helped save his life after he had a stroke in his office.

And I understand that most of this hate is pretty valid, but at the same time I’m not going to deny that I wish that fellow POC didn’t hate on each other so much.

Like, I understand that nobody’s experiences are the same and its wrong to assume so, but I’m sure we have a lot more in common with each other than non-POC… right?

i will never get why many residential volunteer programs only accept college grads. that is all i want to do with my 20’s, i’ve been working years to get enough volunteer hours in to make me an eligible candidate. i don’t understand why they make it as hard as possible for people outside the collegiate system. it’s also unreasonably hard to find an organization that doesn’t fuck with “white savior going to africa as a country” type of outreach

of all things, it shouldn’t be difficult to find an ethical way to do volunteer work

My first two years at Brown weren’t easy, not because I was bullied or because anyone gave me a particularly hard time, but just because, you know, without the collegiate system … and at Brown everyone does completely different things and very much chooses their own path, which is great, but it’s also much more difficult, too. You’re not with a group of people all the time at one time.”