It’s 3AM and I’m walking to the bus stop with two of my friends and a backpack filled with only the essentials; we’re about to catch a bus to Dublin airport to set off on another weekend getaway somewhere in Europe. It might be Scotland, Austria, Portugal, or some other far-off European land, but I don’t really care because, regardless of the destination, new smells, sights, sounds and adventures are awaiting me. In order to get there, the next couple of hours entail security lines, overpriced airport food, a middle seat on a budget airline, and probably a train or two. Sure, it’s all pretty exhausting, but the thrill of a brand-new, never-before-laid-my-eyes-on place is exactly what keeps me buzzing with excitement all the way until the flight back home touches down in Dublin!
Last term, I spent the semester on a student exchange at the University of Limerick (UL) in Ireland. In the five years that I have been in university, my decision to go on exchange and pursue my dream of travelling around Europe for an extended period of time has been the best choice that I have made. While abroad, I made many new, life-long friends that I share a special bond with, and I got the opportunity to explore my way through nine countries. The memories that I made while on this adventure are unique and priceless. So, I thought that I would write this post for any students who are considering going on a student exchange; the following are some of the things that I learned along the way that I wish I would have been aware of prior to my time abroad.
However, with a student exchange comes the actual “being a student” part; therefore, another key, albeit challenging, part of my exchange was learning how to adapt to a brand-new school environment where campus, classes, assignments and protocols were quite different from what I had been used to for the past four years at Laurier.
Beginning classes at a new school felt like I was starting university all over again. Granted, I was considerably older and now used to being away from home; however, I didn’t know the campus, I had never met a single one of my professors, and I didn’t even know how to log onto Sulis (the UL equivalent of My Learning Space). Suffice it to say, I had to do a lot of learning and adapting in order to adjust to my new academic setting.
Plan! Plan! Plan!
First off, the class schedule and dynamic was significantly different in Ireland in comparison to Laurier. For example, four out of my five classes had mandatory tutorials where we would work on supplemental course materials in smaller groups. Although this seems like a minor difference to Laurier, it actually felt like quite a substantial change. Not only did I have every class twice a week, or once for an extended period of time, but I also had a 1-hour tutorial once a week for four of my courses. So, I had to adjust to spending more time in class, and I also had to adapt to having so many tutorials. These tutorials required us to prepare separate readings and work on top of our regular lecture preparations, so that we would be ready to discuss and do activities. Therefore, one way that I had to adjust was by creating a schedule for myself that would allow me to tackle this additional work. In order to do this, I used my agenda to create daily task lists for myself based on what I had to get done every week, and I used the weekly schedule builder that we provide in Writing & Study Skills Services to determine what times throughout the week would be best to complete this work.
It is no secret that I used a lot of my free time to travel. Most weekends I was exploring Ireland or a new city in Europe; therefore, I was not able to do much school work on the weekends throughout the term. This is the exact opposite of how I spend my time at Laurier. Although I do study throughout the week, I typically devote a good chunk of study time to Saturday and Sunday. I find that I am able to concentrate better when I do not need to be popping in and out of the house for classes, work and extracurriculars. However, when I was abroad, I knew that it was important to me to use my time to learn in a new way by travelling as much as my wallet would allow. Therefore, I had to, as a result of my own choosing, re-evaluate my time management strategies and figure out how I could make this new lifestyle work. For me, this meant lots and lots of planning ahead.
I learned to use several planning and time management strategies that I already used, but in a new way! The two main time management and planning strategies that I used were: an agenda and back-planning. Immediately after I received my course outlines, I plotted all of the dates for my assignments in my monthly agenda. This is quite similar to what I typically do at home. The new strategy that I had to put into practice was back-planning since I did not have as much free time to work with to complete my assignments. Immediately, at the beginning of the semester, I worked out a plan for all of the steps that it would take to complete my assignments. For example, one of my projects was to create an informational video on one aspect of Irish folklore. I wrote down all of the steps that needed to be completed to finish this project in chronological order, while making notes about approximately how long it would take to complete each step. Then, starting at the due date in my agenda, I worked backwards and plotted in mini-deadlines for myself throughout the semester as a plan for how I would successfully finish the video on time.
This is an excellent strategy that any student could be using but I found it especially helpful when I was on exchange because I was going to be away from campus and “school life” a lot more regularly than when I was at home. Fleet, Goodchild and Zajchowski (2006) discuss the value of creating a “tentative schedule of study tasks” to complete within a specified period of time (p.36). When students have these plans, they are able to remain organized while also being flexible. By completing this process with all of my assignments, I was able to plan ahead for my papers and projects, and eliminate any stress about them while I was travelling on the weekends.
My big take away message here is that you may need to implement new time management strategies in order to suit your new lifestyle while you are abroad; what works for you at home might need to be changed or adapted because your university experience will hopefully be new and different from what you are used to at Laurier. Although it might take some time to get used you, this is just another beautiful part of studying abroad!
There’s Another Citation Style?
Another interesting adjustment that I had to make while away was learning how to use the Harvard Citation Style. When I first heard my professors talk about this in class, I felt super intimidated. I knew all about the importance of citation and how there can be fairly dire consequences if citation goes wrong. So, I immediately began to seek out resources that could be helpful to me in order to ensure that I would ace the referencing section of the rubric! I was very lucky that my university provided an online guide to the Harvard Citation Style that I could access through the library website. Once I found the guide, I was able to read about all the Harvard rules of citation and follow the samples in the guidebook. However, it was still challenging to work outside of my comfort zones (hi there, APA, MLA and Chicago–I missed you!). In order to get extra reassurance that I was approaching the new citation style correctly, I took advantage of the writing centre on my campus and had the staff review my citations to make sure that I was on the right track. While this change was initially difficult and intimidating, it allowed me to gain a new, valuable skill that might come in handy one day in the future!
Overall, it is really important to be conscious of the fact that your professors’ expectations are most likely going to be different than what you are used to at Laurier. The unpredictability of the unknown might seem unnerving, and, frankly, it is. However, if you are at least prepared with the idea that expectations will be different, hopefully you won’t be too caught off guard. My best advice is to enter this new learning experience with an open-mind and a can-do attitude. If you keep an open-mind, you will be more willing to adjust your practices and learn new ways to approach academic tasks. And, with a can-do attitude, you will have the positive mind-set that you will need to approach these new tasks head-on!
It’s All Relative!
Another thing that I found interesting in the classroom while I was abroad was that my professors would casually discuss topics and give examples that I didn’t know anything about. My issue wasn’t that I didn’t watch the news enough or that I wasn’t following the right people on Twitter; the problem was that these examples were very specific to Ireland, the UK and, sometimes, Europe in general. For example, my Education professor would often use elements of the Irish school system, like certain curriculum documents, to expand on points throughout his lectures. While this makes complete sense, because in his mind he was talking to Irish students who were training to become teachers in Ireland, it was completely disorienting to me! First of all, I was overwhelmed by the fact that there were terms and concepts that I had literally never heard of but that were clearly important to know for my success in the course. Additionally, I was a fifth year Concurrent Education student in a second year Education Curriculum course, so it was more than a little disheartening to feel lost in a subject that I was usually so excited and confident about!
All in all, this was a challenge that I faced within most of my classes while abroad. It never occurred to me while I was studying at Laurier how contextual so many of my lectures were; thinking back to the classes I’ve taken in Canada, I can think of endless times that my professors used distinctly Canadian and North American examples to enhance lectures and to frame assignments. However, I was never aware of the contextual knowledge that was needed to understand these ideas because I never had to consciously put it into practice. According to Writing Across Borders (2005), this is something that is experienced by a lot of students who study internationally. The video discusses how professors have certain cultural assumptions that they presume all of their students will also have; therefore, it can be a challenge for international students to follow along during lectures or to write certain assignments that rely on these assumptions. For myself, I found that I had to do some extra research after class in order to make myself aware of the terms, policies, events, and so on that my professors discussed in class so that I was able to understand their examples and explanations.
The video also discusses how some international students who come to North America experience discomfort when they are asked to complete certain types of assignments. Fortunately, I did not run into any assignments while abroad that I was not comfortable with, but this is something that many exchange students do experience. According to Writing Across Borders (2005), it can be uncomfortable for students to do things like criticize the government, the institution at which they are studying, or society in general within a paper. This type of assignment can be jolting for students because it is one that they might not experience at home; therefore, I mention it here to make prospective study abroad students, or current exchange students, aware of some of the types of cultural differences that they can run into. If you find yourself in this position, there are several strategies that you could use to make yourself feel more comfortable. Your first point of contact might be your professors. If you explain to them your concerns, they will more than likely be happy to chat with you about the discomfort you’re experiencing and to reassure you about your ability to complete this type of assignment. Furthermore, you might find it helpful to reach out to other exchange students to see if they are experiencing similar feelings. Knowing that you are not alone in your concerns will help you to face the discomfort and meet your professors’ expectations. Finally, you could visit your host school’s writing centre, if they have one. There, you will be able to share your concerns with the staff and they will be able to guide you in the right direction for completing your assignment.
Overall, I wouldn’t trade even one day of my study abroad experience for anything; however, there were some obstacles, like the ones I discussed above, that I would have loved to have been aware of prior to my departure. Therefore, I hope that if you’re reading this and you’re thinking about taking on the best adventure of your life, you will feel more confident in knowing that going to school in another country is different, and sometimes challenging, but that there are so many strategies which can be used to help get you through happily and successfully! Good luck Golden Hawks! Don’t be afraid to spread your wings and fly!
Fleet, J., Goodchild, F., & Zajchowski, R. (2006). Learning for success: Effective strategies for students (4th ed.). Canada: Nelson.
The Oregon State University Writing Intensive Curriculum and The Oregon State University Center for Writing & Learning (Producers) & Wayne Robertson (Director). (2005). Writing Across Borders [Film]. Retrieved from https://media.oregonstate.edu/media/0_v4s6xtpp