By Flavio Spadavecchia, Go Abroad Ambassador spending a semester abroad at the University of Liège
This is it. You know there are only a few weeks left until the exchange year/semester abroad that you’ve been dreaming of for months. Every inch of your body can’t wait to get on that plane and begin a new adventure with your mind open to new experiences, like a sponge dipped in water. Or maybe you’re still nervous and unsure about what awaits you on the other side and whether you have everything ready and in order. Whichever description fits you better, this article is for you! I’ll go over everything you want to prepare and give you a few tips to calm you down you before the big day.
First of all, for those of you who are thinking ‘I don’t need this, everything is under control!’, please do read on! It’s a good attitude to have before leaving for your exchange, but keep in mind there can always be things left for you to sort out and processes like Erasmus+ (which involves money that’s being given to you) can be lengthy and you need to make sure everything is set. And if you’re still nervous, I promise that it’s more than normal! I got the lucky chance to go abroad again this upcoming semester, so we’re on the same boat. I promise that even though it’s not going to be my first time living abroad, I still get a little anxious thinking about it, but as long as you take care of everything, you will be fine, like the thousands of students who’ve been through this experience before.
- Go to the Go Abroad and Erasmus pre-departure session
It’s compulsory, so you know you have to go, but I promise it’s really useful. Our Go Abroad team have seen countless students go on exchange to our partner universities, so they know what your concerns might be and what you should keep an eye on. They’ll give you similar advice as what I’ll mention in this blog post, but you will also get the chance to speak to a Go Abroad Ambassador who has been to your host country and will provide invaluable advice that you might not be able to get anywhere else. Nonetheless, keep in mind that some information can be university-specific, and our Go Abroad Team cannot keep up with the admission processes of every single partner university that we have.
- Has the host university given you the OK to go?
It might seem obvious that once Aberdeen nominates you to go to a certain university, then there wouldn’t be anything left for you to do, but this is very far from the truth! It’s correct that Aberdeen nominates you, but it is your responsibility to carry out whatever application form your host university demands. When I applied to Akita International University, there was quite a long form for me to complete, I had to include which classes I wanted to take, go get a physical exam with my doctor, provide university transcripts and financial evidence for the visa process. Not to mention I had to send everything by mail and make sure it would arrive before the deadline. Double-check you’re on top of the bureaucracy and that the host university knows you’re coming. Aberdeen University will let you know about which applications you need to worry about, so make sure you’re always reading emails coming to your university account!
- Do you need a visa?
This semester I’ll be going to Belgium, so no need of a visa, but last year, before I went to Japan, I had to go all the way to my Japanese consulate in Rome to obtain the appropriate visa. The process will vary greatly depending on the country of your citizenship and especially where you are going. My French friend didn’t need a visa to study in Mexico only for a semester, for instance, so do your research and make sure you know how it works and what documents you need. Keep in mind it might take time, so don’t leave it to the last minute. Oftentimes, countries also require your passport to last more than six months before your scheduled departure, so keep an eye on these things. Again, the main institution for you to contact would be the embassy of the host country and the host university, not our Go Abroad Team. Also, if you are a non-EEA student in Aberdeen, don’t assume your British residence permit will be valid in other EU countries!
- Keeping in touch
Don’t forget to download Skype or similar apps and make sure your friends and family know how to use it. Remember that some countries limit which apps you can use (i.e. China), so you might want to download local apps, like WeChat, so you can keep in touch with your friends and family back home, as well as make sure you get the contacts of your new local friends!
- Location, location, location!
Don’t forget about the accommodation! There is a lot of variation, depending on your host institution. Some universities require exchange students to live in student accommodations on campus, but even then, make sure you choose wisely – if there is a choice. We all know how, in Hillhead, Wavell or Fyfe are not exactly the same as New Carnegie… I have heard student accommodation in Hong Kong is quite competitive and by far the best option. Conversely, student accommodation in continental Europe is often not the most common option and you might want to look for private flats. Make sure you know whether rent will include Wi-Fi, utilities, bedding and so on. Remember students will most likely concentrate close to campus or to the city centre. Websites will vary depending on the country, but usually Google will be your best friend looking for a place to stay. You might also arrive and stay in a hostel for the first few days in order to find accommodation. Look also for Facebook groups dedicated specifically to find flats for students. If you find students from your host university who are going abroad at the same time, you might even manage to swap and find a flat that way! Contacting the host university directly can also be a good way to figure out what exchange students usually do in this situation.
- Brush up on your language skills
If you’re going to a non-English-speaking country, you might want to have at least some basics down, before you leave. We all know you can’t learn a language from scratch in a few months, but taking the time to learn a few key words and phrases can show the locals that you are interested in their culture and I promise it will be much appreciated. Erasmus+ even offers an Online Linguistic Support (OLS) website, where you can test your language skills and then receive appropriate free language classes up to the advanced level. Definitely a good idea to at least check it out and see if it can be of any help. They currently support almost every single language of the countries participating in the Erasmus+ Programme. And if everything else fails… Remember you can download a whole language on your Google Translate to use even offline. You’re welcome.
- Gear on!
Are you going somewhere really cold? Warm? Are you sure you know the temperature of your host country at that time of the year? Australia might seem like a never-ending beach Summer paradise, but it gets quite cold during the Winter (which is our Summer!), so make sure you know what it will be like. Furthermore, look up all about sockets and plugs, as you will need an adaptor. Read about what you’re allowed to bring with you on the plane and through customs, especially food (Italians, I’m looking at you…)! It’s probably a good idea to bring a debit card with you and only withdraw local currency once you’re in the country. If you’re looking for easy debit cards to use abroad with very low exchange fees, I recommend looking into Monzo, Starling and Revolut. Remember that your Erasmus grant is also paid in your British account! I might make a post in the future where I go over my experience with these non-traditional banks.
- Buy a plane ticket
There’s no rule against buying your plane tickets before you have all of the paperwork sorted out, but remember that if something goes wrong, you might not be able to get your money back. At the same time, the more you wait, the more expensive tickets will be, so it’s really up to you and making a well-thought-out decision. I recommend using websites like SkyScanner, Momondo and Kayak to find the cheapest flights. You might want to buy travel insurance as well and don’t forget to sign up for the free travel insurance our university offers, but remember there are still things it does not cover: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/medical/electives/elective_information/page/23
I know all of this can be overwhelming, but you are a student of the University of Aberdeen: You’ve got this! It might be a good idea to organise a little get together/goodbye party with your friends and family right before the departure (that’s where everyone will start asking for souvenirs…), in order to prepare you mentally for this new adventure. If you can take just one advice from this list, this is it: Try not to have too many expectations. It’s normal to have ideas about what it’s going to be like and it’s nice to have some sort of bucket list, but avoid comparing your experience to other people’s. It could be the best year/semester of your life or maybe just a nice adventure overall, but it will depend a lot on what you make of it! Keep an open mind, embrace it, adapt, keep up with classes, explore, and I promise it will be an experience you will never forget.
If you have any doubts or query, don’t hesitate to email StudyAbroad@abdn.ac.uk or Erasmus@abdn.ac.uk.