Managing Expectations – or Lack Thereof – while Studying Abroad

About the Author: Emma Knight ’21 – Spring 2020, Semester in Stirling, Scotland

I knew since high school that I wanted to study abroad in college, and with my parents strongly encouraging it, I set up an appointment with the Study Abroad Office almost as soon as I arrived at Elizabethtown College my first year. Since I was not planning on going abroad until my junior year, I had plenty of time to think about where I wanted to go.

Pretty early on, I had my heart set on Brussels, Belgium – I had done my research on the town, culture, activities, the college I would be attending… Fast forward to junior year, when I applied for the Brussels program (an Etown Limited Enrollment Program), I was not accepted (ie. approved by the College to attend this program), and, with no backup plan, I asked the Study Abroad Office for recommendations. I am a communications major, and most of the suggestions included colleges and universities with strong communications or media programs. After some very brief research on each of my options, I decided to apply to go to the University of Stirling in Stirling, Scotland, somehow managing to get all of the required materials together despite the short deadline I had.

To be honest, I did not do any research on Scotland or the university – the extent of my knowledge came from the movie Braveheart (which is not all that historically accurate, it turns out) and my mom’s ravings about the television show Outlander (some of which was actually filmed on the campus at the university). So, when asked what expectations I had for my time abroad or things I wanted to do, my response was always, “I don’t know; just traveling, I guess.”

Even after being bombarded by similar questions, I still did not really look into anything about Scotland, or even the United Kingdom in general. I figured I had seen my fair share of British television, it is an English-speaking country, and I learned a good bit of its history in high school; how different can it be? I asked a couple of my friends who studied abroad in London last semester about their time in the UK, and I really did not think much about my upcoming departure, though I still was very excited.

However, almost immediately after arriving at the Edinburgh airport, I began to get the impression that I vastly underestimated how different everything would be. They drive on the opposite side of the road, which is still disorienting more than halfway through my time abroad; all of the grocery stores and other big chain stores are different; and even the fast food chains that are also in America have different menu items, and the ones that are the same as in America still taste different.

The culture shock, though more jarring than anticipated, was not the biggest issue for me; thinking back to the stages of studying abroad diagram shown to us at the pre-departure orientation, my period of homesickness and missing my family and friends hit basically the first couple weeks after I arrived. I did everything I could to manage my feelings, and that period is now a faint memory of my experience here so far.

As for traveling, I have done quite a bit, despite the challenges that comes along with it – I will never again take for granted someone else planning a vacation. Everything about the planning is stressful; you have to coordinate flights, hotels, transportation, food, activities or sight-seeing, not to mention paying for everything. This all seems very obvious, but as I had never planned a vacation or any major travelling myself, I was taken aback at how difficult it is to coordinate a trip. Seeing as this was my one “goal,” it was difficult to tell myself that I would not be able to go somewhere new every week. However, I now am pretty decent at navigating public transportation in new places, and I have had great experiences while travelling both inside and outside Scotland. I am also very grateful for the opportunities I have been given to travel and study abroad.

As for my other expectations, those are basically out the window; though I know my way around Scottish shopping and dining norms, I also miss a lot about shopping and eating at home. When I get back to the Philadelphia airport, I will be requesting stops at Chick-Fil-A and Target, and I cannot wait to be able to drive places again. I honestly was not expecting to miss America as much as I do, but being abroad has really made me appreciate it, especially almost-weekly runs to Lancaster with my friends for some retail therapy.

If you are planning on going abroad, do your research and set realistic goals and expectations, as it will save you a lot of heartache and confusion once you are in the thick of it. But, also, do not be too afraid to go with the flow sometimes; it is up to you to make the best of your time abroad, and there is not right or wrong way to do it.

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