1. Even if you go to an English-speaking country, there will be a language barrier. In the United Kingdom, pita is pronounced “pitta,” wheat toast is “granary,” shrimp are “prawns,” and “pants” are most certainly underwear. It’s pretty unnerving when you first arrive in a new country, jetlagged and sleep-deprived, and have to deal with words like “hoover” and “hob” (vacuum and stove). No matter where you are going, be it Thailand or Scotland, you will encounter a new language to which you must adapt in order to get by and truly experience the country.
Do not underestimate the difficulty of accents—not every British accent sounds like Colin Firth’s, and the thicker ones take some getting used to. It’s incredibly embarrassing to ask someone to repeat the same sentence over and over again, but as long as you don’t ask a Brit if they are Jamaican (and I assure you, I know someone who has), you’ll be fine within a few weeks.
2. You will have to fight some stereotypes. On my first night out with some British students, I was asked if I knew where Ireland was. Apparently Americans aren’t exactly known for their geography skills. As a Texan, I’ve fought many assumptions about my horse, my accent, and my opinion of Mitt Romney. Stereotypes will run rampant when you first arrive in your destination of choice, but debunking them actually makes for some hilarious conversations. You will have to fight with some of the stereotypes you harbor as well, but overall it makes for an awesome learning experience and some great friends, even if they don’t drink pot upon pot of tea, play cricket, or look like James McAvoy. Though when they do, it’s even more exciting.
3. You will never take preregistration, Moodle, or syllabi for granted again. Course registration can be a nightmare. At King’s College London, you rank courses without knowing when they occur, and the system doesn’t consider this factor either. Even if you receive all of your top classes, they may conflict, and you will have to readjust your schedule once you find out if extra tutorials and seminars conflict.
Professors also don’t assign reading every week. Instead, they provide a list of books that they highly recommend that you read. Sounds great, right? With no required reading you have all the more time to explore and go out! Think again. Any material from these sources is fair game on final exams, and that’s actually pretty terrifying.
Eventually the schedule works out and you learn how to handle the reading, but getting used to a new education system after having received a syllabus every year for about a decade is definitely a learning experience in itself.
4. You will be surprised. I read all of the travel guides. I watched all of Downton Abbey. I drank tea every night in preparation for my departure to London. Still, none of that could really prepare me for the experience. Studying abroad will constantly surprise you and challenge your preconceptions and expectations.
I primarily chose to go to London because of King’s very broad religion program. (Many universities in the UK and Europe understand the study of religion as a ministerial degree, and, well, becoming a minister isn’t exactly one of my life goals.) I was obviously excited to be living in London as well as to explore the city and enjoy the nightlife; however, I really didn’t imagine an experience much different from living in the United States. After all, the U.S. is England’s rebellious child.
I always used to say that if I studied abroad, I would want to go somewhere completely different from America and bursting with culture. I almost went to India. England, however, has fulfilled my desire; this city has more culture than I ever could have imagined. Every area is different: I’ve sipped high tea in Chelsea, devoured £2 bagels on Brick Lane, witnessed daily prayer in a mosque in East London, cheered for a little-known football (soccer) team on the South Bank, and indulged in Kebabs in Oxford. I have yet to eat a roast dinner, but I hear they are a staple of British life. Every expectation I have had about London has been completely subverted, and I could not be happier.
5. Life abroad is better without fear, unless it is excited fear. Afraid of being a little bit of a tourist? You will see some beautiful cathedrals, learn some history about where you’re living, and end up with so many pictures and memories. Afraid to go to a museum alone? If there is an exhibit you want to see, see it, even if no one wants to see it with you.
Afraid of how overwhelming the beginning may seem? You will not have a phone, a blanket, Internet, or friends, but it’s okay. Have a breakdown now, but know that those things will come. Afraid to say yes? The first weekend in London, some British students spontaneously approached me and a couple of other girls and invited us to join them for drinks. I was nervous to say yes, but these are now some of my closest friends here.
I have tried my best to say yes to every (reasonable) offer that has come my way, and I have not been disappointed yet; in fact, I believe my time here has been better because of it. The beauty of study abroad is that there is no room for fear. After all, you will only be in this country for a limited amount of time, and that time flies by. So enjoy it, embrace it, and take advantage of it.