Studying abroad always brings about certain expectations and to be honest, most of them have nothing to do with studying. Instastories of my peers built up the impression that a year or a semester abroad will be the best time of your life. You will live a care free lifestyle, partying every weekday, jet setting around Europe every weekend.
Paris, Venice, Barcelona, it doesn’t matter where you go because your study work load is limited and your valet limitless. If you’re feeling lonely, don’t worry – you will immediately meet a group of like minded friends from all over the globe and embark on a passionate love affair with a man named Santiago. You return home a new, culturally enriched person and conclude the process by making sure everyone around you is well aware of that.
With a head full of similar hopes, I alighted the bus I spent four hours on due to not checking the proximity of Stansted airport and started what I hoped would be a new chapter of my life, here in Brighton. It was a fine September day, the sun seemed to believe it was still the height of summer and so did the people, who were cheerfully littered along the seafront. All seemed promising.
What a surprise it was, when a couple months later I found myself sitting on the cold stairs at the back of a restaurant I just got fired from without any reason or notice, smoking my first cigarette in years, while desperately shielding it from the hurricane quality wind with sprinkles of rain, the á la carte specialty of Brighton’s seafront.
Suddenly left without an income that my life depended on, I stared at the little tent cities created by towns numerous rough sleepers and wondered whether they will survive the attack of the loose dumpster lid and if so, whether its inhabitants would let me move in with them starting January. I guess a shared room with no amenities would be a downgrade, but at least the overwhelming smell of urine might remind me of our shared bathroom, which was despite my best efforts permanently left in a state that would make trenches of the First World War seem sanitary.
In this moment a long suppressed realisation struck me. Despite living in a town that prides itself in the happiness of its students, I was straight up not having a great time.
To be fair, I knew what I was getting into. I was well aware that Brighton, compared to other cities I lived in previously, is ridiculously expensive. The costs of basic accommodation and necessary public transport are in no way favorable to student budgets, while the University alone does not recommend relying on finding a job or working more than 10 hours a week. As a lifelong believer in equal opportunities I willingly chose to disregard this. After all, should my lack of privilege override all my hard work and keep me from fulfilling my goals? Turns out it probably should.
Unfortunately, finances are a pretty important thing to take into consideration when choosing your host university. Seeking a job in a foreign country can only be described as a quest of almost biblical proportions. When you can’t find it at first, you feel too stressed and guilty to actually enjoy yourself and after you do find it, it gets even worse.
This sentiment was greatly expressed in a song by The Smiths: “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job. And heavens know I’m miserable now.” As a foreigner you usually do not enjoy the benefit of choice when you seek employment. I certainly didn’t, since I felt like not being British, but also not being diverse enough to be interesting has left only one door open for me – the greasy swinging traffic door to service industry. Therefore, the time I was supposed to spend on trips, socializing and studying was instead wasted on dreading work and unsuccessfully managing my growing anxiety.
If you’re on a budget and deciding between multiple universities, I advise you to choose the cheapest option. Working while on exchange isn’t worth it at all, especially since you can have the same amount of fun elsewhere, whilst having time to actually relax and enjoy yourself. If you do decide to work, value your time, always strive to find what‘s suitable for you and never settle with something you’re uncomfortable doing.
After taking off my pink heart-shaped glasses, I realized I’m not the only one who struggled during their exchange. I remembered stories of my friend whose mattress was made of cardboard in France, a former classmate who complained about not having enough fun because the small German town she studied in had only one club, which was solely open every other Wednesday or a friend of a friend, who in contrast had too much fun and accidentally got a girl pregnant in a country where abortion was illegal.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, perhaps bar the last one, do not lose hope. Take some time for yourself instead and try some things you normally wouldn’t have a chance to do or wouldn’t even dare to try. You don’t ever have to feel embarassed because no one knows you properly and after you leave nobody will care that you were a nude model in a pottery making class. Studying abroad may not be all rainbows and sunshine but you may find that just by putting yourself out there you learn so much about yourself that it makes the whole mess worth it.
By Simona Molcsanova