Studying Abroad vs. Grad School Abroad

Thursday, October 1, 2015

As the months have gone on during my time in England – over 12 of them, as a matter of fact – there's a particular type of question/comment I get a lot that is starting to grind down on me.

"I wish I could study abroad again too!" 

*Squelches tires, pushes car into reverse, slams on brake*

A lot of people who have studied abroad and even those who haven't seem to be under the impression that doing a master's overseas is kind of like Study Abroad 2.0. Considering for many people studying abroad is the highlight of college, so who DOESN'T want to study abroad again?

Hey, I'm with you there. That summer overseas (or...on know what I mean) was incredible and I would relive it in a heartbeat. Sure I came back to England with little hopes here and there that I would have the same types of adventures I did in 2012 – but it's just not the case. For one, I'm not 21 anymore and I now keep neon-coloured alcoholic drinks at a 10ft radius.

I was studying Western European Art and Architecture on a multi-country program meaning our class of 40-something study abroaders alongside our manager and our professor traveled from country to country as a group. Although our base and affiliated university was in London, we went all over the place as a whole. Our days began with a normal classroom lecture for several hours followed by a field trip of sorts to a local museum, which covered whatever we discussed that morning; i.e. lecture in Amsterdam followed by a visit to the Rijksmuseum. Sometimes this would take the entire day, sometimes only the morning, occasionally we would have a completely free day, etc. It was kind of the best of all of the worlds. But like I said – that's my own situation and I know it wasn't the same mould as everyone's experience, so I can't really speak for everyone. I had friends who studied in South America for an entire year, Spain for 6 months, Cape Town for a summer, and all of our experiences were completely unique.

I also later on went to participate in the alumni organisation with my program provider, where I got to to visit headquarters with fellow alumni and learn all about the company and the "behind the scenes" of studying abroad. This really shaped my perspective on study abroad as a whole and I learned so much during my year as an alumni ambassador. You can say I love live breathe study abroad, and think it's a vital part of the university experience. More and more people are studying abroad and slowly but surely, more are beginning to full degrees overseas like myself and many others. Which is amazing! But there are a multitude of differences that I feel could be ironed out...

2012 // 2015

1. Money
Studying abroad while you're in college is an incredibly affordable way to live in another country. Whether you live in dorms or with a local family, you'll live in major cities with essentially pre-paid rent since you paid your fees before ever crossing the ocean at a fraction of what it would cost anyone else. To give you an idea...when I was in London, my classes were held off a busy street in Kensington. One of the most expensive areas of London to live in, where a parking spot for a car was recently purchased for £200,000. My program also included breakfast in each location and a friend of mine who studied in Paris with a host family also received breakfast from the family each morning, but this obviously varies program to program. Study abroad programs may seem expensive when you look at the grand total, but they include a LOT. You pay upfront and have to worry about very little from then on other than meals, excursions/activities, nights out, etc. I did spend a lot of money on food since we were always on the move and we never really wanted to bother with anything that required proper cooking, but as I had received a small scholarship for my program I kind of just cancelled this out in my head.

Grad school abroad obviously does not give you free breakfast every morning. You get the freedom of your own kitchen and buying all your own groceries, so I definitely spend less per week on meals out than I did studying abroad. However...grad school is also not one big lump sum and then taking it easy from then out. You have your visa, everything that comes with that including paying for passport photos, taking a day off work to drive to your nearest immigration office to conduct your biometric appointment, and paying the large visa fees. Then you have your overseas tuition rate (ouch). Your housing (ouch). Your one-way plane ticket (ouch). Your moving costs (ouch). And miscellaneous things like a new phone, kitchen supplies, bedding, etc. (ouch). Aaaand don't forget that 'ol exchange rate! Everything is in the currency of wherever you're going. If that's England like me, that means British sterling pound which absolutely crushes the American dollar. In summary: OUCH.


2. Friends
When you study abroad, you're joined by fellow American college students, probably around the same age as you. Making friends is easy because you are all on the same page: you all just got off a long plane ride, you all speak the same language and have the same norms, most people don't know anyone yet, and you're all just there to explore new places and have fun! My first day in London involved getting to Heathrow the same time as about 10 other students, taking a taxi to our accommodation together and getting to know each other, exploring Kensington Palace as a little group and then going to a nearby pub and staying out until 2a.m. with our fellow classmates. Our entire program got along with each other so well and we were in tears hugging each other on our last night in Italy.

When I arrived at Heathrow for grad school, I was a-l-o-n-e. I hopped on a train by myself that I had never been on, to a city I had never been to, into a taxi where I rolled up to my accommodation which had no one in the courtyard. I saw a few people walking here and there but they all kept to themselves and clearly were not in the mood to hug and become BFFFFFs. When my orientation events started I finally met other people including people in my program, and when my program started I made friends with my classmates. There were people of all ages, nationalities, backgrounds, and lifestyles. Which was incredible because I met so many unique people and learned things that I never ever could of done if I had remained in an American bubble. It opened up my mind to so many different perspectives and started to understand just how big and diverse this world is. But with its downfalls - everyone isn't quite on the same page as I mentioned when you study abroad. People in grad school have families in the city, commute from an hour away, have major research projects at their feet. We would regularly (little too regularly) go out for drinks after class and have plenty of fun, but it definitely wasn't the same instant bond like I had experienced studying abroad. Your friends/classmates also vary a ton depending on what program you are doing. My friend Sara, who was not only my grad school soulmate because birds of a feather flock together, was a History M.A. and she said her program was mostly British people, while mine was International Relations and it was mostly people from mainland Europe and Eastern Asian countries.

At the airport in pants-airport chic.

3. Roommates/Flatmates
A few weeks before I left to study abroad I received a Facebook message from a girl named Holley who was also from Texas. We had received our departure packets from the program which included our flight information and the names of anyone else in our program who was booked for the same flight. Holley had searched my name and found that we already had a few mutual friends and handful of things in common. Upon arriving to our accommodation in London after meeting each other at the airport in Houston along with another girl from Texas, we found out that we were actually roommates! In a nutshell: Holley and I got on like white on rice. We went on nights out together, explored new cities together, ate every meal together, danced around to Lizzie McGuire songs in our room at 4a.m, you get the picture. We were so attached at the hip that we lasted 4 days back in Texas before meeting up with each other to drink margaritas.

When I rolled up to my grad school accommodation after that long day of travel, if the cricket noise of awkward silence in movies was a real thing, it would have happened at this moment. I waited around until someone from the office poked their head out and brought me inside, where I signed some documents at the office and was given the key to my flat, which was also empty and quiet. My flatmates slowly trickled in as the days went on and we eventually bumped into each other in the hallway and kitchen area at the same time. There was 6 of us in total and we wound up all being from different countries, so we joked that our flat was the mini United Nations and bonded over what being an international student was like. You would think by living in a foreign country that we would all be open-minded souls, buuuuut that wasn't always the case – there were lots of moments where some could get stuck in the ways of "home". That being said, we had hilarious mishaps like one of them nearly sticking a metal knife in the toaster to fish out a bagel and two of us screaming at her in terror, or one of my flatmates having never had pizza before so we all ordered a pizza feast as a group - and she ended up hating it, hahaha! We got to sample each other's food, celebrate each other's holidays, and generally be emotional support for each other since we were all postgraduate students on the brink of dissertation breakdowns at all times.

We even posed on bicycles the same way

4. Free time / Social life
People who study abroad are there for the academically enriching experience...and to have a damn good time. Everyone want to explore, visit other countries, eat all the food, drink all the drinks, meet all the people. It's an adrenaline-filled time where your endorphins skyrocket to new heights. Weekend excursions are a regular thing and RyanAir and EasyJet become your second language.

Most of my free time in grad school was spent with deadlines and reading looming over my head. However, since grad programs are typically longer than most study abroad ones, I didn't feel the same "I have to do/see everything because I'm on borrowed time" mindset like when I studied abroad. I get to stretch out my day trips and weekend trips and generally get to relax a bit. I've squeezed in countless visits and activities and a more gentle pace rather than tearing holes in my feet. Now that academia is behind me, I curl up on the couch and watch Bake Off, make dinner in a real kitchen, and frequent my local SpaceN.K. a little too often. Grad school also equals regular trips to the pub post-seminar to debrief on trying to wrap your heads around what just happened.

Grad school: the longer the seminar, the bigger the beer.
5. Academics
When you study abroad, the academic atmosphere depends on where you're studying, what course or courses you're doing, and a whole bunch of other factors. If you want to learn a language, you will never speak so well as immersing yourself right in the country that speaks that language. I had friends in Italy who had a chocolate-making elective class. I had taken over three years of art history at my university in Texas but when I studied abroad I got to SEE the art that I learned about in the lectures in the same day. Professors know you're there to study, but also have fun. You're required to go to class but I don't know too many people who struggled keeping up with the academics of their program, other than those who enjoyed local nights out a bit too much.

Grad school, on the other grad school. I can't compare my course to graduate programs in the US because, well, I've never done a master's course in the US! What I do know is that grad school consists of lectures and seminars where you are expected to produce the knowledge rather than simply take notes, terrifying oral-presentations where I said words I barely understood, mountains of reading on a nightly basis, writing essays that are tens of thousands of words long which are graded by some of the best researchers and academics there are. While my under eye dark circles may never recover, I was so proud every time I got a good mark back or finished a presentation, because it challenged me to think differently and try my absolute hardest, even if I had been doubting myself the entire time.


6. Hand-holding
Study abroad programs are designed to make it easy. Seeing the behind the scenes while being an alumni ambassador for mine really made me understand just how much time and effort goes into making student experience seamless. When I was studying abroad I unfortunately had a family emergency at home and a few weeks in, got pink eye (cute). My professor and tour manager were so kind and empathetic, not only did they regularly check up on me to see how I was doing emotionally, but the manager actually walked me to the pharmacy in Switzerland to help me get medicine. She was basically like our own personal Irish momma bear. She made sure all of us were safe everywhere we went, gave us advice for nights out, and would even join us in the evenings for meals or telling us unique facts about the city. When our accommodation in Rome wasn't quite ready, rather than sit on our luggage waiting, our professor gathered us all up and took us on a spontaneous walking tour of the city. The program itself kept tabs on us even after we had returned home, with email newsletters, social media networking groups, and surveys wanting to know how our experience was.

This is going to be blunt: in grad school you are looking out for yourself. I registered with the U.S. embassy in case of emergencies and my university held various orientation events to help international students adapt to the city, but that's about the extent of the warm and fuzzies. Being a full-time student in the UK gives you access to NHS services which is great in case you need to see a doctor. Essentially, you receive no extra hand-holding in grad school overseas than you would at grad school in your native country. That's not to say that if you are in need of help the locals or school will roll their eyes and send you off, but you aren't the main focus of their love and attention like you are when you're a study abroad student. You're an adult and they treat you like one!

More time = more castles to see.
In a nutshell...

Moving to England to do my master's is one of the greatest things I have done and I wouldn't change it for a minute. At the same time, I've been riddled with stress and anxiety tenfold the amount I was during study abroad; stress over school, stress over money, and stress over tiny things that wouldn't be a big deal back home but suddenly become a nightmare when you're in a foreign country. Although I think many people call this "being an adult" ;). Considering I moved 7 hours away from home for undergrad, I thought I was already a pretty independent person who had no problem taking initiative before, but this has pushed me on to a whole other level. My new perspective (Hipster Barbie, much?) and newfound independence is something that I couldn't have duplicated if I had taken a "traditional" path. I've seen and explored so many places and pushed myself out of my comfort zone on a regular basis. I've always loved the UK, but now I understand the culture and country a million times more rather than seeing it as an "outsider" or from an American-student bubble. There's so much more to this country than the clichés.

I realise a lot of this sounded like me whining about how hard my life is overseas (nah) and that study abroad is much happier and better than grad school overseas (mehhh). I hope it came across as a discussion point rather than a rant, because I'm really interested to see what other people have to say - whether you've studied abroad, done grad school abroad, moved abroad, or none of the above!


Did you study abroad or do undergrad and/or grad school overseas? What were your experiences like? 

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