Studying Abroad: Preparing for the Unknown

You are at the airport. You have your luggage at your side and you are suddenly painfully aware of the unknown you’re about to throw yourself into.

There are only three certainties: a) your suitcase is missing something you most definitely need, b) your suitcase is containing too much of everything you most definitely don’t need, and c) you have no idea whatsoever what is going to happen for the next however-long of your life.

Nearly one year ago today, I stood in London Heathrow airport with one measly suitcase at my side – within the weight limit – feeling utterly unprepared for what I was about to do. As I lingered outside the security barrier, I (tearfully) came to terms with reality. When I passed through that gate, there would be no turning back. I was leaving behind friends, family and a relationship, with the knowledge of just one visit home over the next nine months.

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What pure terror and not being prepared at all looks like.

I had woken up that morning comfortable with everything and everyone in my life. Just a few hours later, my life was defined by a suitcase, one phone number and an email address for a roommate without a face.

Summer marks a great transition in many students’ lives every year. In 2012, the British Council claims that at least 28,185 students left the UK to either study or work, with a further 13,663 students travelling within Europe on the ERASMUS scheme. Many of those students will disrupt the cathartic summer holiday period to completely change everything they know in order to live in and appreciate a new culture, and frequently, a new language.

Students will leave home for a significant period to embark on predictably one of the most challenging things they have ever done, but hopefully for many, one of the most rewarding. For students like me, they would leave the UK’s rainy shores, knowing that they were very unlikely to see the island again before their time abroad was up.

Three years prior to that morning in Heathrow, I had signed up for my year abroad as an eager and ambitious 18 year old on my UCAS form. Not one to enjoy the education system, and a young woman with an insatiable appetite for travel, I applied for a three-year university course with a year abroad in the second year.

On the morning of 18th August 2014, I was partway through traveling from my small hometown in Wales, to a town I hadn’t even seen a decent photo of 4,700 miles away.

All I knew of my new home was its name: Ames. 

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Ames, IA: home to eagles and freedom…probably.

For readers who don’t know about the metropolis that is Ames, Iowa, the next few sentences may illuminate the information abyss that surprisingly has occurred around the town.

Ames is a college town home to Iowa State University aka the home of the Cyclones. Ames is located in the centre of Iowa, a state in the Midwest USA that I soon found out is commonly referred to by Americans themselves as a “flyover state”.

Suddenly, it all didn’t look so good.

Arriving in my new home was an anticlimax to say the least. Suffocating heat, lacklustre “hellos” and a faulty key all led to me finally seeing the inside of my flat nearly 24 hours after I started travelling, exhausted and fed up. It’s probably no surprise then, that upon realising I was about to spend the night with no food sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a city where I knew nothing and no one, I broke down.

Yes, my first reaction to the next year was not excitement, but pure, unadulterated despair.

However, I was ok.
I was more than ok.
Within days I had a strong group of friends I spent the rest of the year with, and a great place to live with a caring roommate.

So to anyone about to leave, don’t be ashamed of being afraid, it’s only natural. Don’t fret that you won’t be prepared – because you almost certainly won’t be – and that’s ok. You are about to undertake what will likely be the hardest thing you have ever done, and there is no way to sugar coat the truth.

You will experience a struggle.
You will likely feel lonely sometimes.
You will have times when you can only think “why?”

But.

You will never forget how much you overcame.
You will never forget the adventure.
You will never forget the people, the fun, the “what-the-fuck” moments and the one-of-a-kind sensation as the adrenaline in your veins courses through you like liquid gold.

And most importantly,

You will never regret it. 

Good luck, you’ll love it.

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