Study Abroad: Tips & Tricks From A “Veteran”
It is that time of the year again! Our International Office is now accepting applications for studying abroad in the next semester. This call will last until the beginning of March (barring a few partners that have earlier deadlines), but it is better to start gathering your documents since preparing an application package takes some time. This is an opportunity not to be missed and I would recommend everyone to take a look into the list of partners and see if any one of them suits their plans. In fact, I had two exchange experiences during my undergraduate years, and yet I am applying for a third one as a master’s student; one may say that this is quite addictive. Consequentially, I consider myself a “veteran” of studying abroad and I would love to share some tips and tricks with you from my past experiences to help you on your own journey!
Before Going Abroad
Studying abroad means applying for it on time, getting a visa on time, synchronising with the academic calendar of a new university and country, and more “goodies” like that which basically means that you have to get really good in managing your time, and preferably organize your life around this experience to make sure that everything goes smoothly. If you miss a deadline for a paper, the worst thing that can happen is getting a lower grade for it. If you miss the deadline for submitting the documents necessary for a visa, you may not get it on time and your entire exchange adventure may end prematurely. This actually happened to a friend of mine, who had to cancel his exchange semester due to not being able to get a visa on time. So, always check the dates for every single little task that you have to do. I know that it is an arduous task but “better safe than sorry.” Similarly, always be on time, and if possible, be early. Bureaucracy is unpredictable. While I got my own Russian visa in 2 days (which is what it usually takes for Turkish students), a friend’s visa took 2 weeks to be processed. If he trusted the official deadline and submitted the paperwork “on time,” he would not be able to get his visa in a timely manner. Long story short, be organized, keep a calendar with deadlines, and make sure you deal with them before they are due.
It is all fun and games when we talk about going abroad, meeting new people, doing new things etc. but let us not forget that all of these cost us a lot of money. Thankfully, the International Office actually makes it mandatory for people to fill out a form calculating the amount of money that they will likely spend. That is a great start, but I would recommend a bit more thought to be put into it by the students themselves. First of all, know that you will spend more than you imagine when you eventually arrive there. From unexpected parties you feel obliged to attend, to exciting trips that will be offered by your host institutions, there will be more “opportunities” to spend money than what one may first thought of. Sadly, there will also be expenses that come out of nowhere. For example, during my time in Canada, we had to pay around 20000 roubles in fines for parking our car in a wrong spot, which was a rookie mistake that costed us heavily. It certainly was not the first time I had to pay for something unexpected, and it was not the last. Just be ready for such incidents, financially and mentally.
Speaking of money, I cannot emphasize the importance of learning about the banking solutions and the “economic culture” of the country you wish to study in. You can often get a student bank card in any bank, even without residence in that country. However, transferring money from one’s own country to another is often a headache, so make sure that the bank you will be working with in this new country has partners back in your home country. Obviously, you can use companies such as Western Union, but the fees are usually exorbitant so it is often better to bring enough cash for your study abroad period, if you can. That is what I did in the previous two exchange semesters I had. I calculated my expenses, added a 20% on top of that for “good measure,” exchanged it for the local currency of the country I will be going to, and then opened a bank account there to put my cash in it for safe keeping. This saved me from a ton of trouble. Also, cash itself can be useful in some countries. In Turkey, Russia, or Canada I had no issues with cards being accepted but there are others, like Germany, where you can have a really bad time if you are just stuck with a bank/credit card for payments. I cannot remember the amount of times where I was told to pay in cash in places that ranged from restaurants to pubs, from clubs to bookstores in the middle of Berlin. That is what I meant by the “economic culture” of a country. You may be used to using a card or cash, or both, but make sure to do your research on what is more accepted (or expected) in the country you are going to be visiting. Likewise, do not forget to check the tipping culture of the country you are going to as well. As someone from Turkey where tipping is reserved for exceptional service, and mostly something only expected from people with means, I was shocked to see that in Canada even a student without a job is expected to pay quite a high percentage of the entire bill as a tip to the waiter.
Once You Are There
Keep an open mind. I know, it is a cliché by now, but it is a good one for sure. Try not to be critical with every single new thing in your life, especially with people. There will be times where you will go crazy with certain events that would not happen that way “back home,” but at this point, you are not at home, so it may be better to just get used to it for the time being. Extend this open-mindedness of yours to not only events and people, but also to activities of all sorts. It does not matter whether you never dance at home, try it abroad if you want! Camping, mountaineering, all types of sports, that food you never could try, that one hobby you wanted to start, this list has no end. Try them abroad if you can, especially if you cannot do them properly at home, or just did not have the opportunity or courage for them so far. Join the peculiar clubs you find, make friends with the “weirdos,” and overall try and enjoy as much of your time abroad as possible while experimenting new things to the best of your capabilities.
Study! This may sound dreadful to many of you but hear me out first. Some of the most useful things I learnt during my undergraduate studies, and certainly the ones that I still cannot forget were stuff I studied for during my time abroad. I guess either having more vivid memories of those wonderful times, or it being harder to work in a new environment and system, or a combination of both, makes me remember the classes I took during such study periods more than the rest. Furthermore, during an exchange semester one is often given more liberty whilst choosing their classes, which may be another reason for me to remember what I learnt in those classes better as they were already on an area of expertise that I wanted to get familiarized with myself, and not just a boring list of mandatory classes I had to take to graduate. Some of those classes actually helped me shape my career plans, so make sure to pick a few good ones and study hard!
Sometimes less is truly more. Being far away from everyone we know could trigger a wave of freedom, likely the strongest sentiment that you will feel during your time abroad. However, it would be smart not to give into the temptation of doing things you enjoy excessively, just because you can now. It may feel uppity of me to say this as a peer of yours, but I am saying it as someone who had his fair share of issues with moderation on his own semester abroad, at least in the first one. Over-partying and drinking more or less was the norm in the dormitories I opted to stay in, where people enjoyed the “Greek life.” It was great do partake in it when I was there, but admittedly it costed me a ton of money, energy, and time that could have been spent better elsewhere. I normally prefer not to have any regrets about my past, but when I do think of some, they often relate to what had happened in Canada, or more like, what I did not do because of spending most of my time and energy in parties. I could have seen more, experience more, and even explore a part of the USA if only I moderated my everyday partying to a more reasonable amount.
I truly hope that this mishmash of tips and tricks from me will help you better plan your own exchange semester and live it to the fullest. Best of luck to those that are applying to study abroad next semester!
Mustafa Serdar Karakaya