A study abroad students story about the value of foreign friends
This is a guest post by a fellow study abroad alum of University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She brings a new perspective to the study abroad experience table, in large part due to the fact that she was abroad in 1989! I probably don’t need to explain that times were a bit different back then. Anyway, it’s a great read, definitely interesting, and a nice change from my style of writing on The Study Abroad Blog. Enjoy.
Headed off for a year abroad? Two words of advice: 1. Lower your expectations about the people from your host country. 2. Make friends with students from other countries that are also studying abroad.
Snuggled warmly in your dorm room, painting pictures in your mind about how wonderful your year abroad is going to be is like trying to live in a Harry Potter film. I hate to break it to you but Emma isn’t going to become your best friend and no one is going to give you an owl.
Access to all the things you take for granted: a nice warm dorm, comfortable college bedding, weekends home with old high school friends; next year you can kiss all of that goodbye. Next year is a learning experience, not a vacation. You may even find that it is a year filled with Basilisks (Harry Potter reference – giant serpent). The friends that you make on your year abroad are essential for survival. Like Harry these are the people that you can look to for friendship, warmth and comfort. Rarely, however, are these students from your host country.
Spain for me was a planet apart, and a place where I had spent summers with my mother as she ran the UCSD summer foreign language program in Madrid. Intimately familiar with ESL students in the States, many had lived at our home over the years; I didn’t necessarily expect a warm reception once I arrived at my host school.
Scotland certainly wasn’t my idea. Excited about all the amazing classes in college, I found myself with a letter from my university informing me that I was set to graduate promptly after my second year. I had enough credits; I had fulfilled my degree requirements so out you go was the policy of the University of California.
Somehow or another someone suggested a year abroad and I found myself looking at brochures for colleges in England and Scotland. Looking back, my mother was probably behind the whole thing. She knew she was terminally ill and dying of cancer by this point. Pushing me out of the country was her way of hiding much of the pain from me.
I arrived at St. Andrews in Scotland with a rucksack and combat boots. I was ushered into an unheated dorm that looked like a castle. Within a few hours of arrival I was told to meet downstairs with all the other foreign girls. I wandered into a large drawing room straight out of Pride and Prejudice wearing my combat boots and my best sweater.
I sat down next to a beautiful blonde woman. She said, “I’m Sylvia, from Austria. What’s your name?” She paused, looked me over and added “American?”
“Hi, yeah, I’m from California, how did you know? Austria? I’ve never been there.” An impish grin grabbed her face as she added innocently, “Oh, Do you know where Austria is?”
“Sure, between Germany, The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland and uh- Slovenia I think?” I added.
Sylvia tilted her head back and laughed. “You are the first American ever to answer that question correctly and it irritates me so much. Would you believe people actually ask me about the kangaroos, and then I have to say NOT AUSTRALIA, Austria and explain it to them. Nice boots by the way.”
At that moment, Sylvia and I instantly became friends. It turned out that her sister was married to a Scot and they lived in St. Andrews, and this was why Sylvia had been sent here for school. She didn’t really want to come but it seemed like a better idea than staying at home.
I went on to spend all of my school holidays with Sylvia in Austria. She showed me parts of Italy that I never would have found on my own. I went to balls and operas in Vienna, took care of her family’s dogs, and watered their garden as a way of helping out while I was there during the spring.
I also learned from Sylvia during my year abroad that most Austrians hate Americans. My boots, knowledge of geography and naturally quiet voice had somehow exempted me from ridicule.
The rich tapestry of my experience at St. Andrews was shaped by our close friendship. Sylvia had a lucid understanding of the social classes that in many ways still dominate Europe and Great Britain. Through her I met my boyfriend (Irish) and several other people that would become close life-long friends. My year abroad was amazing. I loved it. However, among the group of American and Canadian students that came to St. Andrews that year, I think I was the only one to feel this way. Austrians aren’t the only ones who can’t stand us.
Having a lack of expectations, the snide remarks and rude comments made by countless public school English girls didn’t bother me a bit. I had always been a bit “odd” anyway. I ate with the Europeans and partied with the Irish. What more could a girl ask for? Many of the other Americans and Canadian students found the place unbearable and I think in retrospect they probably had a horrible time.
One American man from Boston spent his entire year lovesick over an English girl named Kate. Kate really found him nauseating. A Canadian, an expert in British politics, left after only two months grumbling that the only nice thing he could say about the British was that they were “animal lovers.” Several other American students told me repeatedly they were incredibly homesick throughout the year.
This isn’t a tirade against the British or the students at St. Andrews; it’s an insight. Look at it from the perspective of the local students. Many of them had been in school together since they were very small. Their families knew each other. Why add new friends that were so culturally different and strange? Moreover, exchange students are abroad for one year and then they leave, why make friends with them?
Analyze your current friends and your own behavior at college. When was the last time you said hello to the Muslim girl in your Chem. lab or offered to share your college supplies with the Taiwanese guy down the hall that doesn’t really speak English? As I mentioned above, I grew up hosting ESL students and many of them had an incredibly hard time making friends with American students.
“Abroad to learn the language?” I’ve been there too. The two best ways are either living with a host family who speaks absolutely no English or making friends with other foreign exchange students who also don’t speak English. Taking this approach provides language practice and a cultural experience not only of your host country but of other cultures as well. A year abroad is a fabulous opportunity. Making the right friends can make it a great experience!
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