Mid-September each year marks the annual pilgrimage of millions of students worldwide to their chosen universities. For some this means moving away from their homes for the first time, perhaps to a different city, or maybe even further afield. For a bold few, this September will be the beginning of a transatlantic venture to study abroad in completely different landscapes and cultures.
Studying abroad has long been hailed as an exciting experience for those who dare to embark upon such an adventure and it is no secret that it’s something which boosts a graduate’s employability. But is it a wholly fulfilling endeavour? The common pitfalls and tribulations of studying abroad are often masked by its intrinsically positive affiliations, but its end result may damage more than just your bank balance as Politics student Kara O’Neil discovered.
“I was totally shocked at how cheap studying in Los Angeles (L.A.) seemed at first,” confesses Kara. “I’d always wanted to study in America and doing a foreign exchange just seemed like the perfect opportunity, when I applied for it last year. I was told that tuition fees for a year in L.A. would be just $900 which is practically a third of what we pay in England so I went for it.”
During her second year, 20-year-old Kara was filled with more drive, ambition and determination to undertake her year abroad at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA) to broaden her academic and interpersonal skills.
“Mostly I wanted to get some experience in international politics, and being very interested in American politics, I wanted to develop my understanding of it. But I also wanted the other stuff you expect with studying abroad like a bit of the L.A. lifestyle and to meet local people.”
Kara’s first taste of this lifestyle, which she coveted so much, was handed to her in the form of a £17,000 bill for student accommodation – a shared room with two bunk beds and a communal bathroom.
“At first I thought it was a mistake, I mean nearly twenty grand for a shared room? That’s practically a deposit for a house in England!” says Kara.
“I really started to worry about privacy. I think in England having your own room is just something that students completely take for granted, I just cannot imagine having virtually no privacy to study, sleep, make phone calls or do anything for a whole year!”
Further to this, before attaining her VISA, Kara had to provide evidence to the American Embassy that she had a guarantor able to provide her with £40,000 if necessary, something which after six months of planning her study, she feared may prevent her from entering the country at all.
“Once I had successfully applied for my VISA, which turned out be very stressful, I then had another disappointment from UCLA. I hadn’t managed to get all of the modules I selected for study and actually it turned out, after spending so much money to broaden my political views I’m forced to repeat some modules I did last year because they were the only ones left.”
This is because whilst foreign exchange students at UCLA select classes they wish to take, they are only given ones not filled by home or returning students. This can result in repeating work, and even undertaking something completely unrelated to a student’s preferred course much like in Kara’s case.
For the past few weeks, Kara has been preparing to leave for orientation, ahead of her departure she said: “I think I definitely over looked a lot of things about studying abroad when I first applied looking back. Although I’m still excited to go, I just hope that it is worth all the financial stress and all the worry. I think above all I just hope that I learn something new!”
Another kind of studying abroad, popular amongst medical students is the Medical Elective Placement. This is a chance for fourth year medical students to put all their medical knowledge into practice in a completely different environment for a period of four to six weeks. Many soon-to-be-doctors use this as an opportunity to give back to less advantaged countries by undertaking their elective in countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Cambodia – which is exactly what Sara Cooke did.
Sara planned to spend five weeks in Kenya working with two different hospitals in Nairobi and Siaya. She thought she would be getting a quality experience of life as a doctor in a third-world country, with the added bonus of learning a new culture, but all was not as she had expected.
“When I first arrived in Kenya, I was shocked by how absolutely poverty stricken the place seemed. I didn’t expect to be living in a house with no running water, no electricity and the bare minimal food supply. I paid a lot of money, nearly £2,500 to do my elective so I think I just expected something a little more,” says Sara.
Although Sara accepted the living conditions as part of Kenyan culture, her real shock came when she arrived at the hospital for her placement. “The hospital was nothing like I expected or was told to expect. It was just a dusty, unsanitary building with maybe five staff doctors who barely spoke to me and no medical procedures which I didn’t recognise.”
Sara began to worry about her time in Kenya when she found herself struggling to live and work without basic safety provisions, something which she has no prior warning about.
“I started to feel like there had been a complete disregard for my safety from the company that organised my placement. Aside from the constant worry that I might be exposed to a virus at the hospital, just getting to and from the placement was a completely stressful nightmare.
“I was told that I would be able to get a bus to and from work, which turned out to be a matatus. That’s basically an old van all beaten and dilapidated. They don’t have seat belts or tyres filled with air and most don’t even have working doors. They looked like they belonged on a scrap heap.”
Sara’s worst fears were realised when she fell ill during her time at Siaya Hospital and was confined to her room for six days, fearing she may have contracted malaria or yellow fever.
“I couldn’t help but feel like I’d unknowingly sacrificed my safety and ultimately my health for my elective. I believe I picked up a bug from the hospital because it was so unclean. There wasn’t even hand sanitizer to use between treating patients,” she remembers.
Since arriving back in the UK, Sara has continually suffered with exhaustion and flu-like symptoms as a result of her illness in Kenya.
For many, this September will undoubtedly bring treasured memories and new experiences of studying in a foreign country, but perhaps with a price. When asked what advice Sara would give to students looking to study abroad she smiles wryly: “There is a reason why studying abroad is an experience and not a lifestyle, remember that.”