What to Expect When You’re Expecting (To Study Abroad)

A helpful travel guide at your fingertips (Credit: Pixabay)

Giving birth to your study abroad year is going to be a long and difficult process. It’s best to get any expectations of an easy transition out of your head and, instead, mentally prepare yourself to push. If you thought selecting a destination that matches with your degree program’s requirements and turning in all the forms to BCB on time was the hard part, think again. The road ahead is paved in paper; watch your step so you don’t fall through the precarious bridge to the other side of your diploma.

I do not intend to discourage you from going abroad but, rather, to equip you for the labour ahead. Hereby follows a practical, first-hand guide to get you through the (typically) nine-month long academic year abroad in a way that optimises your health and happiness while also caring for the well-being of your scholarship. If you’ve chosen to return home to Berlin early or to study abroad in two separate destinations over two semesters, you will still benefit from the sprinklings of wisdom contained within this guide. Without further ado, here’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting (To Study Abroad)…

Part 1. First Things First

Chapter 1. Should I go abroad?

Ah, the age old question: Should I or shouldn’t I make the leap from one country to another, just when it seems I’m finally starting to settle into the rhythm of school life at BCB? For most restless sophomores, the answer to this question is “Yes!”. But, oh eager-ones, don’t take this decision lightly. After all, it’s not just you that you’ll have to worry about for the next nine months, but your academics, too. When considering your options, don’t be afraid to whip out a good old-fashioned pencil and piece of paper and draw up a simple pros or cons table. Think about questions like:

-How well will I be able to cope with such massive change?

-Will I be able to make friends there? If so, will I be comfortable saying goodbye just as I am really getting to know them?

-What about the financial aspect of the “mobility” (formal lingo for “the move”)? Can I obtain a grant, for example, through an ERASMUS Exchange or any other institutions?

-Have I racked up enough academic credits that my transcript will be able to absorb any mis-match or fall-through of courses at the receiving institution — for example, if a course I have signed up for is cancelled on short notice?

-The study abroad application form typically also asks you to think about your future thesis and how the desired host institution’s programs might fit into that. But, let’s be honest, you probably have no clue what you want to write about yet, so it’s time for some earnest thumb-sucking on this point.

-Am I suffering from FOMO or the-grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome, or do I genuinely think the experience will be more enriching than another year at BCB? What will I be leaving behind that I would not be able to recover?

You get the idea. Regarding the credits and the grants–these are things that your academic advisor should be able to help you with. For the rest, you’re on your own.

Chapter 2. The Next Steps

Okay, deep breaths. You’ve made your lists and the verdict is positive. (Or maybe you’re just going on a gut-feeling). Now what?

It’s time to hit the Internet and get researching! The first and most obvious criterion to examine is the appropriateness of a certain program or a set of courses at the receiving institution for your personal degree track. Check your transcript for the modules you need to complete in order to graduate with your cohort, and scout out those which could be filled at another university in consultation with the module handbook and your academic advisor (this is going to involve a lot of close-reading and cross-referencing). At some of the receiving institutions, there is the possibility of taking classes that will fulfill Core course requirements. If the course lists are not yet available for the next academic year, look at those of past years to get a feel for the course offerings, or just send too many emails to the administration of the university you are applying to until you get an answer out of them.

After you’ve narrowed universities down by their applicability to your degree track, take a look at what the city or surrounding area presents in terms of leisure and cultural activities. If you long for peace, quiet, and beautiful landscapes, Bard Annandale might be the right destination for you; if you’d rather not spend another winter in the Northern hemisphere, consider an international exchange with PUC-Rio; if you’re interested in diving deep into an economics-focused program, an exchange with the University of Bologna could be a good fit. Though it goes without saying, also keep an eye on your finances. Remember that the tuition-waiver you’ve been given for the study abroad program is just that and nothing more. You’ll still have to provide for food, lodging, transport, possibly health insurance (depending on the extent of your current coverage)… and everything else that doesn’t fall under the category of tuition.

Happily, you can greatly complicate an already greatly complicated process by electing to go to more than one location! Indeed, many second years infected with Reisefieber, Emma Jacoby among them, proclaim “Carpe Diem!” and take the opportunity to spend two semesters in two separate institutions. Even if there is really only one institution that appeals to you, it’s good to have a backup just in case your first choice falls through. Once you’re sure of your desired destination(s), it’s time to apply!

Chapter 3. Apply

Whatcha waiting for? Fill out your year’s version of the Study Abroad Application Form and submit it on time. You don’t need me to tell you that, do you?

Chapter 4. Preparing for the Transition: First Contact

And now. You. Wait…

After you’ve gone through all this effort, sit back, don’t relax, and wait to see if BCB will “nominate” you to go to your chosen destination. The likelihood of you getting your top choice is affected by the number of positions available at the receiving institution (it’s called an “exchange” for a reason) and the popularity of the destination amongst your classmates.

If you get “nominated” by BCB, congratulations! They’ll put you in touch with your prospective host institution, who will review your application and decide to either welcome you or turn you away (the latter case is unlikely). If you didn’t get nominated…well, you didn’t want to go abroad that much anyway, right? Count yourself among the blessed who won’t have to battle the nitty-gritty of the administration involved from here on out and take this next year to really get to know Berlin.

Chapter 5. Preparing for the Transition: HOLY GUACAMOLE. WELCOME TO THE LAND OF BOUNTIFUL BUREAUCRACY AND IMMENSE INCONVENIENCE.

Your excitement at going abroad may or may not turn into anxiety once you realise just how much will have to be done to make it there and back again legally, without spending any nights on the street or at risk for racking up a huge medical bill in case you get sick.

Some friendly suggestions:

-Depending on where you’re going, you may need to apply for a student visa. It’s best to get this application out of the way as soon as possible since it will likely take a while to process. If you are unsure of whether you need a visa, Xenia Muth (Admissions and Recruitment Officer, Civic Engagement Coordinator) and Tina Marie Joaquim (Study Abroad and Internship Placement Officer) are happy to help.

-Tickets should be purchased early to avoid last minute fare-spikes.

-Scout for housing if the university doesn’t provide residence

-Check the extent of your medical coverage. TK–the default choice of most BCB students–provides coverage throughout most of Europe (more information here)

-Since this (probably) isn’t the first time your host university is welcoming exchange students, they (should) have a guide to help you get settled. Look for it. Follow it.

-The mantra for everything that you can: start early, start early, start early.

Good luck, kiddo. Print all those forms double-sided so as not to kill too many trees on your journey yonder.

Part 2. Nine Months and Counting

Preamble: Am I abroad?

…sure looks like it!

Chapter 6. The First Two Months

Congratulations on making it this far! Who’d imagine that an idea, once conceived, has the very real possibility of coming to fruition? Presumably you have entered your country of choice legally and have found a roof under which to shelter yourself and the financial resources to keep afloat in the coming months. From here, it is your duty to make contact with the administration of your receiving institution to make sure all your academic affairs are in order. There will almost certainly be more paper pushed your way for you to sign, and many more fun forms to fill. Grin and bear it: You wanted this opportunity!

Business matters aside, the first two months represent the prime time to socialise and begin to weave your social safety net for the semester(s) ahead. Take advantage of the “Welcome” events and bond over how uncomfortable they always make those things; take the initiative to join a sports team or an extracurricular where you can meet like-minded students. (Pro-tip: If you’re in a country where you are not fluent in the language, make friends with a helpful bilingual who you can call upon in times of uncertainty — or many, so you can rotate and outsource your neediness among them while maintaining a facade of respectability)

Your school work this month: Probably not a whole bunch of coursework to worry about yet, but make sure you’re registered for the right classes and that you figure out where-to-go-when.

Yourself this month: Time for the pat on the back. You made it this far; the hard part is over. Now, the schoolwork can begin.

Chapter 7. The Third Month

You didn’t think something interesting was going to happen every month, did you?

That’s life. Get over it and do your work.

Your school work this month: Exams, essays–the joy of each student’s life!

Yourself this month: Ha.Ha….Ha.

Chapter 9. The Fourth Month

Ah, blissful vacation time! Stay at home and do nothing for once; travel the nearby world; see family and friends that you’ve been neglecting (or been heavily dependent on) these past months.  

Or, if you elected for another destination, time to worry about (and be excited for?) the next phase of your study abroad. You’re probably an expert at packing and unpacking boxes by now, saying hasty and inadequate goodbyes, and running to catch your next bus/flight/train that seems to either be perennially delayed or for which you are chronically late.

Your school work this month: On hold.

Yourself this month: Free. Or not. (No–this is not an existential musing).

Chapter 10. The Fifth Month

If you’re somewhere new now, refer to the advice for the first trimester (above) and embrace your double-fresh start. If you’re in the same place, continue to savour how quickly novelty wears off and enjoy the freedom of the somewhat familiar.

Your school work this month: Back at it! Also, you’ll probably have the chance to re-review your learning agreement and make changes to the courses you had originally planned to take, if you so wish.

Yourself this month: Grumpy, excited, neither, or both

Chapter 11. The Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Month

Use your imagination. They start to blur together eventually.

Your school work this month: [insert imagination]

Yourself this month: [insert imagination]

Chapter 14. The Ninth Month

More exams, more goodbyes. Wow, time sure does fly!

Your school work this month: Coming to a close now.

Yourself this month: Mixed feelings? Maybe they’ll make sense later.

Part 3. After the Study Abroad is Over, and Managing Complications While Abroad

Chapter 15. Administration, again

After your study abroad year is over, re-connect with your BCB academic advisor to check in on practical matters. Your academic advisor will also be your go-to person in case something goes south while you’re away. Though you’re spatially separate, remember that BCB is still your home university and that you can make use of the resources it has to offer–including consultation with the registrar, the Student Life team, and even the counselor via Skype.

If you’ve had the need for doctor’s visits while abroad in Europe and your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) wasn’t accepted, make sure to hang onto your receipts and take them to your health insurance provider to be reimbursed once you return. For the most part, this method ends in success, and the insurance people may even be nice to you despite your bad German.

Chapter 16. The Lessons You Don’t Learn in School

A study abroad semester (or two) gives you the chance to step back from the life you had been creating for yourself in your first two years at BCB and observe which elements of this life you’d like to keep, which you’d rather be rid of, and what new hobby, trait, dish or habit you can bring into it when you return. It’s easy to forget ourselves under the pressure of school work and in fulfilling our obligations to others. A year abroad doesn’t quite give you the opportunity to remake yourself (it would take a lot of work to undo the personality you’ve been cultivating for the past 20+years), but it does give you the time and space to re-examine the trajectory of your life. You may come to realise how — through the decisions you make every day, through the opportunities you take and those you forego — you actively influence this. If there’s a lesson to be learned abroad that you wouldn’t learn quite as poignantly at BCB, it’s to live each day as a rare opportunity and not be afraid to connect with others in the limited time you have together.

Though there’s no denying the difficulty and inconvenience involved in hauling yourself across countries, there’s also no denying the value the process provides. Perhaps, an experience like this will be life changing for you. And if it isn’t and reading this was the reason why you made the decision to go abroad in the first place, neither I nor this article will take responsibility for your disappointment.

We will, however, take credit if things go well.