Studying abroad will inevitably mean new experiences, unpredictable circumstances and most probably, feelings of being overwhelmed by something you weren’t totally expecting. A recent study found that 41% of international students experience substantial levels of stress. For students from Asian countries, this stress can often be magnified by extreme cultural disparity when studying abroad in Europe or North America.
However, the benefits of studying abroad are immense – the chance to see the world and explore a new culture, to improve your language skills, and the chance for personal, professional and friendship development – and should hopefully outweigh the challenges. Let’s take a look at some common barriers and explore some options for overcoming them.
Language and communication
Language is perhaps the most obvious barrier against studying abroad. This is probably particularly true for students coming from Asian countries, where the structure and appearance of the language, both verbally and visually, is so different to the languages of many other countries. Asian students coming to Canada or the US to study might find it easier since the range of languages spoken within Europe is much more diverse than the range in North America. Immersion into a society where a single language is spoken would likely be easier to adapt to.
You could overcome some of these barriers by taking language courses in your home country prior to leaving. This will give you more confidence arriving in a foreign country. These language courses can continue whilst abroad and would be even more effective when supported by a language exchange opportunity, where two native speakers meet to practice each other’s language.
Each student learns from the other in a more conversational style that supports theory learned in the classroom. The university or college should also have programmes in place to help support international students find language learning opportunities – exchange programmes can introduce you to students from your country or those who have returned from studying abroad in your country. Visiting international professors should also be open to speaking to new students during their office hours.
As they say, “money makes the world go round” and with studying abroad that is no exception. At one Canadian University, for example, tuition for first year international students is almost $35,000, not including student fees, books and supplies or living expenses. This is about seven times greater than the fees for Canadian students. Though this is an extreme example, the costs for international students are typically quite high.
Students can mitigate these costs by applying for scholarships. Most universities offer scholarships specifically for international students, many of which are higher values than the scholarships available to citizens. Other organisations like Rotary International and Girl Guides, as well as local service clubs, typically offer scholarships for students wishing to experience their studies abroad.
Another option is to see if the local university in your home country offers exchange programmes. If expenses are a consideration, it might be cheaper to think about enrolling locally and then going on exchange for a year. This might be a more cost effective way to have an experience abroad and allow you to do in-country research about the scholarships and opportunities available to transfer should you want to complete your degree abroad.
A common barrier to studying abroad is family approval. According to the American International Education Foundation (AIEF), Asian cultures have a greater tendency to base their decisions on how they may be perceived by their family. The strong family bonds in Asian cultures may make it harder for students wishing to study abroad to gain important family support, especially if their family doesn’t have much experience of travel.
Though this can be a hard barrier to overcome, students can gain support by listening to their family’s concerns and helping them come up with solutions that would allow the family to address their concerns. Approaching the subject knowing and researching in advance the key questions your family will have could ease the discussion.
If your family is concerned about maintaining your strong bond, teach your family how to use Skype, WhatsApp or FaceTime before you leave, and practice, so by the time you leave, they are comfortable using these tools to keep in touch. One thing that was helpful for my family when I went to university out of country was setting up a regular time to talk, either on the phone or using Skype. We didn’t always make it every week, but having that expectation built into our calendars made it far more likely that we’d continue to prioritise our family time, even while far apart.
Many students travelling abroad for university have difficulty merging socially and academically in their new country. Some of this is due to cultural differences, while some students unfortunately experience discrimination. A large amount of communication is non-verbal and the manner of speaking is different in different cultures. For example, Americans tend to be direct and blunt in their communication style and students are encouraged to defend their ideas and opinions.
In contrast, Chinese students are taught to honour and respect others’ opinions and might simply nod even though they disagree with you, delivering their opinions in more subtle and indirect ways. These differences, if not understood, can lead to cross-cultural communication difficulties that might make bonding with classmates difficult.
To help you make friends, get in touch with people from your university abroad through Facebook or other social media forums and consider joining clubs in advance. Seek out student union representatives who should be used to promoting the resources available at the university and advocating for students. They may also be able to pair you with another student who can help you integrate into the student community.
The university likely has student cultural associations that you can reach out to before leaving your home country, which can help you connect with others in the same position as you. Most universities also have a student wellness centre, where you can seek help if you’re experiencing symptoms of stress or mental illness or need advice on opportunities within the student community.
A big barrier for students studying abroad is accommodation. Some Canadian universities have limited housing on campus, and have introduced residence lotteries, making it less likely that international students will have priority placements. In the UK, international students who are unable to secure residence on campus may have difficulty finding living space elsewhere if they do not have a UK guarantor.
This might mean that students have to pay large deposits, sometimes up to 6 months rent in advance, to secure space. For students travelling great distances, it might be impossible to visit in advance of the school year in order to find alternative accommodation, which means they might have paid large sums for somewhere that ends up being unliveable.
Your first step should be to contact your university’s housing office, which should be able to tell you if there is any accommodation reserved especially for international students or advise you on where to look for alternative housing. Housing is a problem common not just to international students, but also students in country, so lots of websites have been created (especially in the UK) to help.
If renting privately, consider shared housing, which means you might make friends as well as housemates. Some sites have specific sections where groups of students living together can post an ad for a new housemate. Consider renting directly through a landlord because an agency might require lots of paperwork, while landlords might be more flexible in what they require to rent rooms. Look into websites that can connect you directly with housemates and landlords, such as SpareRoom, Gumtree and EasyRoommate.
Remember, if the biggest barrier to studying abroad is the one inside you – the fear of the unknown, don’t let uncertainty stop you from gaining all the amazing benefits of studying abroad. After all, “Uncertainty is the essence of life, and it fuels opportunity.”