Semester Abroad - the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Written by Una Cullen

Edited by Francis Urciullo

My name is Una. I am a 22-year-old student majoring in International Communication at the Hanze University of Applied Science in Groningen. As part of this program, I just finished a 5-month internship in Vienna and have recently moved to Seoul to do a minor. Through my experience, I’ve learned that living abroad is not always as easy-breezy as people make it out to be, so I thought I’d share my perspective in this blog post. Hope you enjoy it!  

If someone had asked me how I imagined my first month in South Korea before coming here, I would have probably painted a picture of me eating amazing bibimbap, out singing karaoke with a pool of my 20 cool new international student-friends, and of course, being conversational in Korean. As you can guess, this is not my current reality. It could actually not be further from it.  I am writing this from a quarantine facility in the middle of nowhere in South Korea, having just eaten kimchi and rice for the third time today, knowing that since coming here a month ago I’ve made a grand total of one friend (who I haven’t talked to for a week), and the only karaoke that is being performed is by my roommate who - I’ll give it to her - is really putting on a show singing along to her music. Unfortunately, I have not yet reached the episode of Talk to me in Korean where they teach you to say that you’d greatly appreciate it if you don’t have to listen to Bruno Mars on full blast for the next five days. So, if you couldn’t tell by now, this is going to be an honest retelling of my experience of working, living, and studying abroad. And since this is a blog post, I guess I’ll throw in some tips and learnings. 

For context, I am in the third year of my degree. Now for many people that is just another year, their last year maybe. If you go to my university (Hanze UAS, I’m looking at you), this year is presented as the one that will change your life. I am not exaggerating - they might be, though-. I remember being asked about my plans for the third year about 10 times before having even survived the first week of my studies. That’s because this year entails going abroad for an internship and a study-abroad semester. For me, this meant working for an NGO in Vienna for 5 months and now studying as an exchange student in Seoul. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic opportunity, a massive privilege, and surely a life-changing experience for some. However, I believe the conversation around it is lacking some nuances. Because, -shock horror-, moving abroad is not always all fun and games and it doesn’t have to be the time of your life, even if ESN, your fellow students’ Instagram reels, and that one person who spent 4 months in *insert any city here* and met the love of their life there will want to make you believe it is.  

So, let me dedicate this paragraph to telling you what other sources gloss over. Moving abroad is sold as an investment in your future due to its enriching nature. However, this investment is not a viable option for everyone. Lack of financial means, bad mental health, safety concerns due to race, sexuality, or gender, or dependency on health care that isn’t accessible in other countries are just a few reasons why people might not have the choice to go abroad. (Read: What can we do to make semesters abroad a feasible option for everyone? And, if people do go abroad, these and a hundred other reasons make navigating a new life difficult. I have friends who paid insane amounts of money for a shared room (New York), got roofied by their co-worker (Sicily), decided to cancel their semester abroad (Berlin, Taipei), weren’t allowed into the country due to Covid restrictions (Hong Kong), struggled to find friends (Vienna), worked a shocking amount of unpaid overtime (Berlin), got grabbed in the metro (Paris), fought the pressure of always having to be social (Vilnius), got mugged in the street (Lille), broke up with their girlfriend because of long-distance (Vienna). All these events can be a part of the living abroad experience, even though they are not spoken about. 

Coming back to my situation: I caught Covid in my third week of being here and there’s nothing that quite prepared me for receiving 10 phone calls in Korean about my state of health and then being moved out of the dorms, picked up in an ambulance and brought to quarantine facility where I am now in a room with a girl with whom I don’t share a common language.

What I am trying to say is that uprooting yourself from your known environment is challenging! Though, I do think that there are a couple of things that help ease into a new life. So, for those of you who are or planning to go abroad, here's some unsolicited advice from someone who also doesn’t know what she’s doing.

  1.   Prepare where possible. Are you going to a country whose culture is very different from yours or where you need specific language skills? Read up on it. Obviously, you’ll really get to know the culture of a place once you get there but establishing an understanding beforehand will help you not feel as overwhelmed.  
  2. Take your time. Somehow, every time I move somewhere new I find myself trying to cram everything into the first two weeks. And then I get upset if I haven’t seen all the sights, eaten all the food and made all the friends. So, don’t be like me. Setting up a new life takes time. In Vienna, I sometimes found myself not fully present, already thinking about my time in Seoul, while now that I am here, I am mourning my life in Vienna. If you can and want, I’d really recommend staying longer than a semester because personally when leaving Vienna, I had the feeling of having just settled.
  3. You don’t have to do it all. From my experience during your exchange, you will meet that person who goes clubbing every night, excels in class the next morning after 3 hours of sleep, has a group of 15 best friends, will plan weekend trips such as going on 7-hour hikes or wild-water rafting and somehow is not losing it. If you do meet them, maybe ask them for their advice instead of mine. No, but if that’s exactly what you’re going for, you do you! I’d honestly applaud you. But it is also fine if you find Erasmus parties exhausting or lame and would rather chill at home after class. It goes without saying that if you want to meet people you have to put yourself out there. Though, if you find yourself getting approached at a bar by a guy who wants to mansplain NFTs and crypto to you, remember that you have the option to just leave. Find the activities that you want to do, not those that you feel like you have to.     

Now that I’ve covered the bad and the ugly, it’s time to get soppy about the good. The other day when sending a voice note to my friend, I found myself asking: “why did I choose to move to the other end of the world again?” For me, the answer is as cliché as it could be. Through taking the leap I learned a lot about myself, saw beautiful places in the world, learned new languages, and got to meet some of my now-best friends. The possibility of all of that might not completely make up for the loneliness, confusion, and a 5-day Bruno Mars marathon, but it does make it a bit more bearable.

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