Study abroad experience was a great experience for me. I learned a lot and had some great memories. But, you should not make the mistake of assuming that it will be all rosy. At times, it will be hard and emotionally taxing. But believe me; you will come out as a stronger and more confident person. It’s all about getting out of your comfort zone, express yourself, have fun, and keep learning every day. Here are the Ten Biggest Challenges That I Faced During My Study Abroad Experience at Aston University in the UK.
Ten Biggest Challenges That I Faced During My Study Abroad Experience at Aston University in the UK
Home Sickness & Loneliness
When you are first time out of your home country, and in a new place, the feeling of homesickness is bound to happen. I was no different. Even more than home-sickness, I was more affected by loneliness in the beginning. It was not that I was always missing home or family. But, the feeling of loneliness was there. Moreover, I won’t describe myself as an extrovert, and I used to be a little bit of shy nature.
The first two-three months were actually quite hard for me. I arrived in the UK in the month of September. Winter was not too far. Winters in the UK are very long. So, it was quite depressing at times. I used to stay in the University Accommodation within the campus. I was sharing the flat with 5 other students. All of us have had our own individual rooms. We used to share kitchen, toilet and shower. I was away from family, friends, and relatives. I didn’t know anyone in the UK. After the classes and practicals, I was on my own most of the times.
Due to the time difference with India, calling home was also not feasible. Calling friends frequently was also not too feasible as I had to worry about the bills of the ISD calls. Before coming to the UK, I used to stay in the Boys Hostel of my College in Asansol. Just like any other Hostel in India, boys hardly feel lonely or get bored in Indian College Hostels. So, it was quite a cultural shock for me.
With time passing by, I made friends. In fact, I made many friends. I started to gel well with my flat-mates. We used to cook together quite often. I made few very good friends from my class. I had an extended circle of Indian friends. I also had a circle of friends from other countries. I started participating in various student activities and societies. I even used to go for shopping groceries with friend(s).
I started doing group-study. I developed the habit of doing my studies and revisions in the University Library. Though I was not talking to someone in the library, but I did have people around me. I didn’t have a laptop back then. I am glad I didn’t have (or bought) one. To do assignments and coursework, I had to go to the Computer Lab of our Department (School of Life & Health Sciences). So, again, I was among the crowd, and doing chit chat with people at times. There were times when I was alone in the Computer Lab (thanks to my Night owl nature). During those times, I used to chat to my friends in US or Canada.
So, I won’t say I overcame the loneliness. But, I found ways to get rid of it. Today I feel very happy that I went through that phase of my life.
Difference in the Education System
The difference in education systems between two countries is expected. But, I didn’t expect such a big difference. There were not too many lectures and practicals. In India, I used to spend 10 am to 5 pm in the College. Thus, 35 hours of theoretical and practicals in a week. In the UK, that was 12 – 20 hours a week for me. In the UK, all the students are expected to do rigorous self-study. Of course, we were allowed to approach the tutors if we got stuck at something or having any doubts. But, the tutors hardly entertain stupid questions.
I once asked a question on Neuroscience to my Course Director. He told me that I can found the answer in two particular books. He also told me about some websites and e-journals to refer to. He then advised me to do my bit and come back to him I have some doubts. Initially, I felt a little surprised, though not disappointed at all. After going through the books, journals, and websites, I actually didn’t require to ask my tutor anything about that particular topic.
Like the teaching pattern, the assessment was also quite different. We hardly used to get straight-forward questions for coursework and assignments. More often than not, the questions were about testing my ability of critical thinking. They used to check if I understand basic concepts and can think rationally.
The issue of plagiarism is a big thing in abroad. Hence, assignments were very challenging for me in the beginning. I was really at a loss. I also got caught for plagiarism for one assignment in Neuro-Pharmacology. But, I didn’t do that intentionally. I had to appear for a disciplinary hearing at the Department. After I put my justification, they understood that it was a mistake, and not a deliberate case of doing copy-paste.
I attended a workshop on understanding what is plagiarism. I spoke to my tutors as well. Then I developed much clear about it. During that plagiarism case, I did put the references, but I didn’t paraphrase them. As a result, the plagiarism-checking software (Aston used to use Turnitin) found too much of similarity index, and I got penalized for that (disciplinary action and 75% marks deduction for that coursework).
After that incident, I started taking notes while attending lectures and writing everything in my own words while reading from books and/or internet. After the results were out, I asked my Thesis Supervisor for the feedback. He said that I was hard-working, technically proficient and intelligent; but I failed to come up with my own interpretation in the final thesis. There was a lack of own rationality and thinking; He further added that it could be because of my lack of confidence that I didn’t put my ideas and interpretations. I also didn’t ask that many questions at times.
The exams were also of similar nature. You might pass with mugging up stuff. But, getting grades need more than that. The hardest part was the research project (thesis dissertation). It was an ultimate test of my intellectual ability. I had my Guide (Research Supervisor). He was a very kind and motivating person. But, he hardly did any spoon-feeding. Once again, I did lot of mistakes with my approach. I conducted the project exactly as per my supervisor’s instructions. I struggled very badly with the interpretation section of my thesis, though my the results of my lab experiments were quite good. As a result, I scored less (59 out of 100) in my Msc Thesis. Due to my scores in assignments, coursework, and written exams, my overall percentage was decent. But, I felt little disappointed with my score in the Research Project.
Well, I couldn’t increase my grades further. But, I got an important lesson for my whole life – be original, be an out-of-box thinker, be inquisitive and to express myself. This learning helped me a lot with my future career and life.
Food & Cooking
Food is a basic necessity. Indians love food. As a Bengali, I have always been a little bit over-obsessed with food. At the same time, I have always been a lazy guy as well, especially with cooking.
During the initial days, I was not a bad cook – honestly. It is because I didn’t know how to cook at all. So you can guess how it was for me during my initial days in the UK – a guy who loves to eat, but cannot cook. Getting used to the British food (which is not too spicy and hot) was also a challenge for me.
Eating out on a regular basis was not a feasible option because it’s too expensive. Ready to eat meals are not always too tasty. From the second week, I started cooking after speaking to my Mother and watching few other guys who were used to cooking. The first one month was quite horrible. Sometimes, the food had less salt, sometimes too spicy and sometimes just not tasty at all. But, with time my cooking skills got better and better.
After two-three months, I even started enjoying cooking. I started experimenting with new recipes and dishes. Quite often I used to have my friends for dinner at my place. So, as you can see, cooking was quite challenging in the beginning. But, later, I made it as one of my strengths.
Adapting to Different Weather
The winter in the UK was entirely different from the Indian winters (especially from my hometown). Back in Kolkata, I never got to see below 11-degree Celcius. In the UK, the temperature in the minus was quite common. It used to snow a lot. Most of the time, the campus was completely covered with snow. It was a beautiful sight for the eyes. But, it was painful at times as well. It took some time for me to get used to that kind of cold weather.
Same thing happened in the summer as well. During the summer, the days were pretty long. It used to be bright and sunny till 9 pm (sometimes 10 pm as well). So, sleep cycle got a bit disturbed as well.
Feelings of Being Out of the League
Not only I was in a different country, but in a completely different environment altogether. I came from a very middle-class Indian family. Whereas most of my peers were slightly from the upper middle class. I had taken a bank loan of around INR 17 Lacs to cover my educational expenses in the UK. Hence, there was an obvious pressure at the back of my mind.
Being in the UK, there was a little bit cultural shock as well. Different norms, different culture, and everything different. There were not too many Bengalis in the University in my batch. So, I hardly used to speak to anyone in my mother tongue. So, several changes occurred in my life in a very short span of time.
Besides cooking, I had to take care of all other important stuff like laundry, shopping, banking, managing expenses, NHS health insurance, getting National Insurance Number etc. So, it was indeed overwhelming for me. But, that’s the beauty of the study abroad experience. This kind of experiences make you tougher and ready for the bigger challenges in career and life ahead.
It was not only the currency conversion that used to bombard my brain in the initial days. It took me few months to get comfortable with using the new currency. Quite often I used to fumble with the cash and coins while paying at a shop or departmental store. I used to feel quite at a loss if I was in a very busy queue. Later, I used to do all the transactions using my card, if it was a busy store. Otherwise, I used to take my time (and increase my speed of counting the new currencies) while shopping at a less busy store.
Although I had taken loan to take care of my all expenses (tuition fees, accommodation and other living expenses); but it’s only wise to reduce the loan burden by doing a little bit of part-time work. I didn’t get a part-time job in the beginning. The reason being that I started looking for a part-time job late. In a big city like Birmingham, part-time jobs are not really scarce. But, you have to start looking for one at the right time.
I started doing part-time jobs after six months. My first job was at a night club. To be honest it was not too easy. My shifts used to be from 8:30 pm (in the evening) to almost 6:30 am (next day morning). So, it was really tiring. I used to do this only during the weekends. So, it didn’t hamper my studies that much. Besides, international students were not allowed to work more than 20 hours per week. I was very careful with these things.
It took me some time to find something less stressful, and more skillful. My second part-time job was at a departmental store. There my working hours were like 8 hours a day. Most of the time, I used to work at the checkouts. While working at the checkouts, I had to be proficient with currency counting. I was little nervous at the beginning. But, the rest of the staff and my shift manager helped me a lot. This job really helped me to develop essential people skills.
Missing Out on Festivals and Social Events
I remember my course started on 6th October 2008. It was Shaptami (starting of Durga Puja) in that year. Within a month there was Diwali too. Outside India, you hardly get that kind of atmosphere to celebrate these festivals. Moreover, when I used to see the pictures of my friends and/or relatives posting photos on the social networking sites (Facebook and Orkut), I used to feel little bad. I used to miss all kind of social gatherings including college get-together, weddings etc. Just like other things, I got used to these as well.
I joined the Indian communities at Aston. They used to organize social gatherings during Diwali, Holi, Eid and other festivals. Of course, they were not as happening in comparison to India. But, they did give me a little bit of good feeling.
Shortage of Money
It is more or less very common with anyone who has gone through the study abroad experience. I was managing my entire study abroad expenses through the bank loan. So, the amount of money for my own expenses was limited. Things I did right – cooking most of the times, not buying too many branded and fancy clothes in the UK, staying on campus (so didn’t have to spend too much on traveling for attending classes and practicals), maintaining a monthly budget and keeping a close eye on my expenses. I used to be a big movie buff (I am still like that). I used to watch 25 – 30 movies at the movie theaters. During my time at Aston, I watched only 6 – 7 movies at the movie plex in the UK; rest I used to watch online (or after downloading). I cut down my costs on other things like cigarettes. In the UK, smoking very injurious to your pockets and lungs. I didn’t use to drink (alcohol). I did go out with my friends few times. But, it was like once in three/four months.
I must say that I learned a lot from my friends. It’s very important to learn (th good things) from your peers. One of my friends gave us a pizza treat on his birthday. But, instead of ordering, he made them himself at his place. I learned quite a few cheap cooking hacks from one of my Punjabi friends. I chose not to go for expensive meals and fancy restaurants every month. But, I did go out for Indian and Chinese buffet dinners few times.
I enjoy travelling. But, during my student life, I had visited only Manchester and Leicester. I even watched a live football match between Manchester United and Aston Villa. But, I resisted my temptation to go places during that time.
It was a good match, and worth the money (GBP 30) as a ManU Fan.
I would like to think that I balanced everything quite well. I didn’t compromise on everything. But at the same time, I didn’t live a lavish life. After all, whatever I would have spent, I had to pay back with interest. But, I did make sure to have a good and memorable time at the Aston University.
Getting a Professional (Full-Time) Job as an International Student
This was obviously the biggest challenge that I faced during my student life in the UK. It was 2009. The UK was going through its worst recession, and 2009 was the peak of the recession period. I was an international student. So, it was extremely hard and competitive.
I had applied to around 55 jobs, after which I got a call for the face-to-face interview. I had started my research on the job market before even landing in the UK. I started the job hunting process very early. I attended few graduate events in Birmingham. I met a Career Coach at that Graduate Event, and it was very insightful. I also attended two graduate job events at the Aston University – one by GlaxoSmithKlime and one by Accenture. I also took full advantage of the University Careers Services. I attended few sessions on CV, Cover Letter and Jobs for International Students. They were really useful. Of course, I didn’t get a job or interview at those events. But, those gradually helped me to make polish my CV and improve my job hunting techniques.
At last, I did get an interview call at the University of Oxford. The interview was scheduled on 25th November (2009). Before attending the interview I contacted my Course-Director, Thesis Supervisor, and the Career Coach. They gave me few tips, which were later proved to be very useful during the interview. I got the job offer on 7th December 2009. That was truly one of the happiest days of my life till date. Later, I started working from 5th January 2010.
At Last, SUCESS :)))
My course ended in September 2009. On paper, it seems that I got the job offer within two months after finishing my course. But, I got the job offer after a job-hunting phase of almost 9/10 months.
I did face several challenges. But, given a chance again, I would like to do it again. Thanks to all my friends, tutors, mentors and the Aston University for making my study abroad journey a memorable one. I hope you liked my Study Abroad Experience.