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Studying Abroad - A Fresh Start

The beginning of the year symbolises an opportunity to start anew and for many of our transfer students, perhaps this one is especially meaningful since it is their first New Year while living abroad. Moving abroad to start a completely new chapter of your life is already no easy feat, let alone amidst a global pandemic. For this article, we caught up with Jessie, Chloe and Renee who are currently studying at the University of Manchester, University of Leeds and Cardiff University respectively to talk about their new beginnings in the UK.

Moving over and settling down

As the Chinese proverb goes, “All things are difficult at the start”. When asked about their initial experiences moving abroad, the recurring theme was simply daunting. Bearing in mind the situational circumstances (namely the pandemic), none of them had any parental accompaniment as they uprooted their entire life and settled into a foreign country thousands of kilometres away from home– there were bound to be struggles. For Chloe, logistical issues were a nightmare and problems with her visa applications meant that she only arrived in the UK one month after the commencement of her course, which made the whole experience even more disorientating than it already was. For most of us, leaving abroad for studies would be the first time that we are truly away from home and our loved ones. Renee describes feeling especially homesick and lost in the beginning and atop it all, she had to cope with her newfound independence and all the responsibilities that came with it. Living under our parents’ roof, it’s easy to take mundane things such as shopping for groceries and coming downstairs to ready-made meals on the table for granted. Living abroad means that these are no longer givens and one has to manage everything on their own. Beyond that, there is also the issue of trying to manage your finances while settling into a new routine. As someone who is conscious of saving money when shopping, Chloe notes that the process of scouring the city for the best deals was especially time-consuming. To put it simply, none of them were (or could have been) fully prepared for the struggles of living alone in a foreign country.

Curriculum and learning experience: how does it differ?

Looking at things as a whole, most of our interviewees’ learning experience in the UK did not differ radically from what we have in Taylors: lectures were either pre-recorded or delivered in real-time and there were frequent seminars to prompt academic discussions in small groups (similar to our tutorials). However, they agreed that there is a far greater emphasis on independent learning in the UK. Students are generally expected to attend classes prepared having done all the necessary reading and highly encouraged to utilise academic support hours that have been made known from the get-go. The bottom line is this– your lecturers will be more than willing to spend time going over any inquiries or concerns, so long as you take the initiative to seek help. Interestingly enough, both Chloe and Renee found the workload in their partner universities to be lighter than what they’ve been accustomed to during their time in Taylor’s. It’s safe to say that all of us are well aware of that stressful period leading up to exam season when we would all be juggling a mountain of assignments, lectures and tutorials simultaneously, before diving straight into examination preparations without any opportunity to catch a breath. Both of them agreed that it is precisely these (should I say traumatic?) experiences that conditioned them to manage their time well in their respective partner universities. Getting into the specifics, there were some aspects of their learning experience that may differ depending on the partner university’s policy. Renee mentioned that Cardiff University’s policy prohibits students from submitting practice answers to lecturers for feedback, which is contrary to the practice in Taylor’s and also Jessie’s experience in the University of Manchester, where students are allowed to prepare skeletal answers to questions during support hours. Nonetheless, a recurrent theme in their answers was the heavy reading load, which far outweighs what is usually expected of students in Taylor’s. Realistically speaking, it is impossible to complete all of the prescribed reading, so Chloe emphasises the importance of identifying and prioritising reading materials that are relevant for exam preparation, even though this skill is one that comes with time (so get started while you’re still here!). Ultimately, prospective transfer students should not worry too much about adapting to a new university, in fact, Chloe found this the least difficult aspect of her transfer abroad. Supplementing her account, Jessie attests that you’ll get used to things despite the initial confusion, and perhaps once things settle down you will learn to enjoy the module content and hands-on approach to learning.

Assimilation: the people, culture and making new friends

Seeing how the UK welcomes hoards of international students each year, the locals are already accustomed to the presence of international students and for the most part, they are friendly and welcoming. It isn’t uncommon to find yourself striking up a conversation with a random stranger here, and Renee fondly recalls an encounter with a drunken girl who fed her a fry while waiting outside of McDonalds. This may be a radical change from what we’re used to back home in Malaysia, but roll with things and you may find many of these encounters to be especially eye-opening. Unfortunately, Chloe has been at the receiving end of several unsavoury encounters, such as being yelled or sworn at. It is unknown whether these instances were common occurrences (you can often find inebriated folks at any time of the day) or racially fueled due to rising sinophobia in light of the pandemic. Nonetheless, she stresses that it is important not to let these experiences distort your perspective and deter you from assimilating into local culture, because it may well be coming from a minority of society. Drinking is a major part of the culture here, so that’s something to take note of (and look forward to if you are no stranger to alcohol). Renee personally embraced this part of the culture with open arms since she wanted the full university experience abroad, but reassures that even if drinking is not your thing there are many other ways to meet new people. All of our interviewees highly encourage prospective transfer students to join as many clubs as their schedule permits, because this is the best way to meet other like-minded people. Of course, making friends can seem difficult especially for those who are more introverted but sometimes all you need to do is take the initiative and put yourself out there. In particular, Chloe mentioned that the Malaysian Society is always a good start. The Malaysian community abroad is especially tight-knit and always there to look out for one another, so this is a good opportunity to make good friends especially when you’re feeling a little homesick.

Trials and tribulations: the not-so-glamorous aspect of moving abroad

As students, more often than not we view a life abroad and far from parental control through rose-tinted glasses. It’s easy for us to fixate on all the exciting adventures that await, yet the transfer abroad is not all fun and games as one might expect. When asked about the most difficult aspect of moving abroad, our interviewees unanimously agreed that adapting to a new culture, routine and responsibilities by far proved the most challenging. Nights spent missing home and the sense of security that came along with it were not uncommon, and everything could feel especially isolating atop of coming to terms with a new life. It can feel like a juggling act at times when you have to keep up with your studies and maintain a social life all without neglecting your own physical and mental health. Sometimes, simple aspects of our routine that we normally take for granted can actually prove to be a greater part of our daily lives than initially thought, and this change was especially jarring for Chloe when she first moved to Leeds. Whether out of sentimentality or even just a comfortable routine that you’ve lapsed into over the years, trading a sense of familiarity– like the sound of pets walking across the tiled floor in the mornings– for the unknown is a change that catches you completely off-guard, especially when you’re a creature of habit like Chloe. Of course, there are also the practical aspects of adapting to the locality and a new campus. The first few months are a whirlwind of familiarising yourself with the campus layout (especially when you’re cutting it close), library systems and of course, the city that you now call home. As terrifying as it may all seem, ultimately one shouldn’t be discouraged because as Jessie reassures: “You’ll fumble and make mistakes along the way but that’s okay”.

Parting advice: some tips and tricks

Our interviewees were graceful enough to impart some useful tricks that may come in handy, and we’ve summarised a few of them below:

  1. Open your UK bank account whilst in Malaysia if you can. Especially if you’re an existing HSBC account holder.

  2. Don’t be afraid to reach out to seasoned international students for advice on the best deals and most reasonably priced shops for necessities.

  3. If you haven’t already, start learning the basics like doing your laundry or cooking before you transfer.

  4. The search for accommodation can somewhat be a gamble since you’re unable to ascertain the actual condition of the property, so be sure to look through reviews and request for photos and videos from the landlord. More importantly, always read through your accommodation contract carefully (don’t disappoint your Contract lecturers!)

  5. UK weather has always been notoriously turbulent and windy, so get a strong and sturdy umbrella (or risk having it turned inside out).

  6. As Asians, we don’t cultivate the habit of walking indoors with our outside shoes on. If this aspect of Western culture is something that irks you, prepare a pair of slippers because the floors of your accommodation have most likely been stepped on by shoes that have gone outside.

Lexicon would once again like to thank Jessie, Chloe and Renee for their generous time and contribution to the article, and we wish them all the very best in their future academic endeavours. For all prospective transfer students who are reading this, we would like to conclude this article with a piece of advice from Jessie:

“Keep an open mind and go with the flow. As cliche as it sounds, every cloud has a silver lining and in trying times, optimism goes a long way. While academic priorities are important, remember to take time for yourself and have fun!”

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