Going abroad can be a scary thing! Especially when you are on your own in a new country, in a new university environment, and for an extended period of time!
While on Exchange at Keele University, I was pretty nervous as I wanted to make sure I would fit into my new life there and have the best time. I was scared of the culture shock, of not connecting with people or simply of missing my life back home.
Think about it, other students are probably just as nervous as your are about starting their experience and would love to hear your story. Do not be afraid and join the group, talk to people you meet, and share your goals and your culture. You might think they are different or might be unsure of how to approach them, but you have at least one thing in common: you are all on Exchange!
While not all my attempts at making conversation were well received, as there are always some people you just don't click with, it helped relieve some of my anxiety by just sitting with the group, making small talk, and getting to know the others. They probably all have the same burning questions as you do and are just waiting for someone to break the ice. So start a conversation and others will soon join.
This is how I met some of my closest friends now: A little bummed out that the previous girl I talked to ditched me to talk on her phone and wasn't in the mood for conversation, I sat down on the bus thinking about what my room at Keele would look like... Suddenly, someone asked me if they can sit next to me. I looked up to see this smiling Belgian girl and nodded replying, "Yeah, of course!". We got to talking and I found out she was studying languages and was about my age. As we were both really excited to travel we made plans to go to Dublin together during our exchange.
The girls sitting around us turned towards us and joined our conversation. We laughed, made plans to hang out after we had all settled in, and talked about life back home....
Don't solely hang out with the Exchange group
While it might b easier to hang out with exchange students (let's face it...natives don't always have the desire, or the money, to go travel with you as much, and they don't face the same problems), try to step out of that bubble and make friends with locals. Who better to show you around and give you great tips than the people from the respective country?! Having a group of friends is great, and you will for sure connect and travel with other exchange students...but talk to people in your classes, go to parties or campus activities and ask them to show you their fave places! Smile at people and talk to them. I participated in this HOST program where I spent the day with a local family and absolutely loved it! My host was an elderly woman; she and I spent the day walking around, visiting old castles and having a great time.
Share your culture
As interested in the customs of your host country as you might be, others will find your own background equally as exciting. As you learn about them and what they love doing, make sure to share some interesting facts about your life back home as what might be "ordinary" to you could be surprising to someone who doesn't know that much about your home country.
Stay dedicated to schoolwork
With all this excitement, it might be hard to focus on studies. Make a schedule allowing you enough time to complete your coursework but also go out and explore your surroundings. It could be easy to forget you are there to learn, which is why creating a routine makes it easier to travel, learn, and have an awesome time! Giving yourself a couple of hours of studying a day will free up your weekends. If you don't understand something talk to your professors. The education model at your host uni could be different from the one you have back home, so don't wait until the last minute to ask for help.
Allow yourself to feel homesick
Personally, I slept with my teddy bear during the first week. Yep, I reverted back to my childhood days and kept thinking about my loved ones back home. Being home sick is okay. People from different countries sometimes do things differently according to their own culture (it would be boring if we all did things the same way, now wouldn't it?) and this can make you feel out of place. I was not happy with my life in England and regretted going there during the first month. But as time passed by I got so used to my life there and I wished I could've stayed longer.
Be a joiner!
Do things you wouldn't normally do back home. This is an opportunity to create a new "you', to step out of your comfort zone. Your school has a Quiddich club? A Falconry club? Go check it out! It might not be for you or you might discover a new skill! While we are home we tend to be overwhelmed by our responsibilities. Going on exchange allows us to shake some of them off and immerse ourselves in the "abroad" experience so take advantage of it. Going to events like Club day or to parties on campus is an easy way to participate in life at Uni and fill up your days. Focusing on "the now" of your experience minimizes the time for homesickness and lets you look at the bright side.
"Time passes by so fast while you are having fun!" Having an overall plan of places you want to visit and activities you want to do will hep you sort out what you want to do and allow you to maximize the use of your time to give you the best possible experience. If you know there is this place you really want to visit, talk to others and see how you can organize an excursion. Make sure to leave some time for spontaneity as it will account for some of your best memories, but do not procrastinate when you can get organized today!
Get familiarized with your surroundings and jot down a few goals you want to achieve while on exchange.
Locals, your exchange coordinator, and the welcoming guides are great sources of information. The first week is crucial to help you know the best places to shop at, the most efficient ways to travel around and the cheapest phone plans. Do not underestimate any introductory talks as they will save you a great amount of energy in the long run. It is during those first weeks that I familiarized myself with resources I had at my disposal and took advantage of the free rides into town, made a list of the best sites offering cheap train tickets and sites offering good study materials. By getting all these obstacles out of the way you will become more efficient without the need to spend one hour wondering where to go to mail out your parcel or how to get a bank account.
Put your mind at ease. Going on exchange will be one of the most rewarding experience you could ever get and will give you a fresh new perspective on the world and on your own life. By being active and focusing on the positive, your studying abroad experience will be great! I can't promise you you won't encounter any issues but trust me, think of them as opportunities to become more independent and with the right guidance and the right resources you will have a wonderful time.