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What is it like studying abroad?

With rising tuition fees in the UK an increasing amount of students are looking abroad for their university education. Studying outside of the UK might also offer a degree course more suited to you as a student and to your chosen career path. What is studying abroad like and what challenges might you face?

Overcoming the language barrier

This is probably one of the most obvious challenges of studying abroad. Overcoming a language barrier may mean you’re learning a new language pretty much from scratch, or it could just be that you thought you were fluent, but find you’re unable to understand a regional accent or slang.

It may be difficult at first, but once you’re out there speaking the language on a daily basis the language barrier has the potential to go away pretty quickly.

Finding your way around your new town

Depending on your location, you’ll probably be able to choose from a range of transport options – tubes, trains, trams, buses or your own car – but starting out in a new place can be disorientating, especially in a big city.

So plan your routes, travel with friends or colleagues and if you’re driving look up the rules! However, once you’ve found your feet go, get lost and explore.

Getting use to a new currency (and budgeting it)

Getting used to currency differences can be tricky. For example, 500 Costa Rican colones make one US dollar. And £1 works out to around US$1.50.

Make sure you work out a quick conversion system for yourself so you can mentally figure out prices when you’re out and about. Get to know the “normal” price for staple items – i.e. ask locals how much they would expect to pay.

Like most of the challenges of studying abroad, currency differences are one of those things that doesn’t really hurt if you are only visiting for a short time, but does have a big impact if you’re staying for a term or more. Don’t spend colones as if they were dollars!

Being far away from your support network

Your usual ‘support network’ of family and friends will be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away if you are studying abroad. Even if you weren’t previously aware of how important they were, now is when you’ll find out. Studying abroad is great fun but at some point even the most confident of us will feel homesick.

This challenge is likely to be felt most especially during the first few months of studying abroad. But after a while, you will slowly build up a new support network of friends and if you are staying with a host family, they will look after you. Don’t forget you can always Skype and Whatsapp your loved ones for free.

Coping with cultural misunderstandings

As a foreigner, you may not know the local culture and all those little unwritten rules of your host nation. Let’s get one thing straight: you will make mistakes, and many may be awkward. Don’t be embarrassed; just learn from it and laugh about it later. Given a bit of time, you will get the hang of it.

For instance, the amount of pressure you should put into a handshake varies significantly from country to country. In Europe or Asia, someone with a vice-like handshake may be perceived as overbearing; however, the same does not apply in the US, where a firm, if not painful handshake, is par for the course as someone with a non-bone-crushing handshake can be seen as weak.

An easy way to avoid many cultural misunderstandings is to watch what others do and how they do it. If in any doubt, just ask! You’ll find most people are happy to talk about their customs, and will enjoy sharing their inside knowledge with you.

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