Exchange at Penn Expect the Unexpected
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October 31, 2019
Michaela Tranfield, King's College London
Looking back to May 2018, just over a year ago at the time of writing this post, I had just submitted my study abroad application. I remember feeling as though an opportunity I had wanted for so long was now in the process of becoming a reality. This meant that I was thinking about everything and YouTube became my best friend, I was watching all kinds of study abroad vlogs and university Q&As for the universities I had applied to. As a result, I subconsciously started to build up a lot of expectations that I had to be living my best life, I had to learn how to surf (even though didn’t apply to any universities even remotely near the sea??) and I had to do the most to have the greatest experience possible.
If you’re doing this too, just take a step back and stop imposing these expectations based off of someone else’s experiences on yourself. If you want my advice, I think that it’s better to actually have a lack of expectations because it can help you to make the most of your experience abroad, no matter what path it may take. Yeah it might not be YouTube “perfect,” but that’s okay because it will be your personal experience. In the end, I tried not to build up a perfect image of what studying abroad would be in my head because I think part of me knew it would be near-impossible to reach that.
I know that this is hard to ask and obviously you want to do your research to see what you’re getting into – I did this too! As a student who had never been to America before and had only been exposed to the college culture through films, music and YouTube videos, I did wonder what the big deal with IHop was and if my accent would actually give me some leverage (spoiler alert: it did…eventually but that’s a story for another day). So, I did have some minor expectations but mostly I thought that being free of having major ideals in mind would benefit me in the long run, which turns out it was.
By having less expectations, it meant that I did not have a standard that my university experience had to live up to. I had made this mistake when entering the first year at my home school. I really thought I would have the crazy experience often portrayed in films, which turned out to be far from my truth. I thought to myself (and this is a key piece of advice to anyone about to embark on their study abroad journey) that if I have a bad semester where there are a lot of bumps in the road, then it can act as a lesson learnt for the future. However, if I do have an amazing time then that’s perfect. Maybe it’s just the optimist in me but I truly believe that you learn something from every experience you have, whether good or bad, so I went into my semester abroad at the University of Pennsylvania with this mentality.
I clearly remember realizing that this was a good tactic when discussing my experience towards the end of the semester with a friend from exchange. We found that the large majority of our peers had an amazing experience at their host universities, but for some they found that it was not exactly what they had hoped for. The reason being is that, for the most part, it did not live up to their expectations of what American college life was “supposed” to look like.
Whilst I do believe that everyone should be excited for their chance to study abroad, I honestly would recommend not thinking too much about exactly what it should be from what you have gathered from other people and media sources. Ultimately, it will be exactly what you make of it. Whilst there inevitably will be obstacles along the way, there will also be amazing opportunities, brilliant memories and strong connections that outweigh every difficulty.
My key tips for studying abroad would be to get to know everyone, avoid having a closed mindset and pre-judging people (even though I know everyone does this at some point, we’re only human!) as you don’t know who you might become really good friends. In addition to this, make the most of every opportunity where possible – obviously it’s not feasible for everyone to go on skiing trips and wild spring break vacations, but make the most out of what you have. For example, look for cool events in the city or what your accommodation and university societies are offering. In Philadelphia there is an organization called ‘Sofar Sounds’ which were secret music gigs in different parts of the city. It wasn’t too pricey to get a ticket and was a fun but chilled evening out where you could also explore more of the city. There really is something there for everyone, and don’t be afraid to do things alone if you’re not comfortable with going to the same things as other exchangers!
All in all, make the most out of your experience. You’re going to meet amazing people wherever you go, experience a bunch of new things and learn so much in the process. This is your experience, go into your semester or year abroad with an open mindset because you never know the opportunities that this will open to you as a result.