Studying abroad can pose a huge challenge in life for many youths. As a student, one must be mentally prepared to face challenges and obstacles that will emerge while studying abroad.
I had the opportunity of interviewing three students to share their experiences with studying in a different country: El, 24, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design in the United States of America; Doris, 19, who is studying a double major in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology along with Immunology and Microbiology in the University of Western Australia; and Nicole, 19, who is studying A-Levels at Concord College in the United Kingdom. El has been away from home for four years while Doris and Nicole have been studying abroad for about a year and a half.
How did you decide to study abroad right after graduating from secondary school? Do you regret it?
El: At the time, the United States was really thriving in terms of arts and design, and that was what I wanted to pursue as a dream. There are also more opportunities in the US for people in the creative field compared to Malaysia. Thinking back, I do not regret the decision I made then since I’ve come a long way now, even though I had been doubtful about it in the past.
Doris: My parents had been planning to send me to study abroad since I was in Form 4. We have been praying for a very long time and we ended up choosing Australia. I don’t regret my decision.
Nicole: My parents were the ones who convinced me to come here, mostly because of the outstanding results at Concord College; they wanted me to expose myself to different cultures as well. I don’t think I regret it because I’ve met a lot of good people here, even though the study environment is very competitive.
What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
El: Even after four years of being here, I still struggle to speak English fluently. As a Malaysian, I grew up speaking English with a local accent, so whenever I spoke, people would immediately know that I was not local and they would look at me differently.
Doris: I guess the only challenge for me is that the workload from my university is very heavy, which makes things very stressful. However, hanging out with my friends, going on road trips and doing things that I like helps relieve a lot of stress.
Nicole: First of all, my course started in September 2020, but due to IGCSE taking place at the end of the year, I had to enroll for the January intake instead, which shortened my course by three months. This meant that I only had five months to finish my A-levels, so it was quite hard for me to cope with the workload. I also had to constantly catch up on lectures and do revision every day. Excluding that, everything is pretty much smooth-sailing.
What was the culture shock like? What aspects of the foreign culture surprised you the most when you arrived?
El: Most of the culture shock that I’ve experienced mainly just boils down to the insensitivity of many locals I’ve met. For example, there was a time when I was just cooking my own food and my roommate suddenly asked if that was how we cooked it back at home and criticised the way in which I was cooking. Similar encounters like this have happened to many of my Asian American friends as well.
Doris: When I went to Australia, I was surprised to see various cultures coexisting wherever I looked. They also celebrate all kinds of festivals so there wasn’t much of a culture shock for me.
Nicole: I would say the weather. In Malaysia, you don’t have to check the weather before going out for a stroll or something. However, in the UK, it’s totally different as the weather is super unpredictable.
What lessons have you learnt going through this journey alone?
El: Just take it easy. In life, things happen and sometimes you just have to go with it. When I went through all of this, it felt like everything just made sense. As cliché as it sounds, don’t give up as bad times will always pass. So just chill, and no matter how bad things may get, everything will eventually get better.
Doris: You definitely need to be independent if you want to study abroad because, in reality, there are no shortcuts to anything so you have to start from scratch and work your way up.
Nicole: When I first came here, I had really bad homesickness so I had to call my family almost every day. I had to learn to take care of myself without my family by my side and to communicate with my friends or with people in general.
Do you encourage other people to study abroad right after finishing high school?
El: I would encourage people to study locally before travelling abroad for university. A lot of my friends studied locally before coming here to study and you can definitely see how much more confidence they have when stepping into and exposing themselves to a completely new culture and environment.
Doris: Yes, I fully support people studying abroad right after finishing high school. It won’t be smooth-sailing, but the long-term experience and memories that you gather in a foreign country will be worth the short-term suffering.
Nicole: If you can afford it, then it is a great opportunity for you to try. Studying abroad is life-changing because it’s about experiencing different cultures and meeting new people, so it’s definitely worth a shot.
Finally, what advice would you give for students that are studying abroad right now who are feeling lonely and stuck?
El: Keep reminding yourself that you are not alone. The things that you’re struggling with now don't matter; you just have to keep going and in the future, you will realise how much you’ve grown. You can do it!
Doris: Accept the reality that you have to grow up and do everything yourself. Your family won’t be by your side guiding you when you are overseas. Get out of your own comfort zone, and build connections that will enable you to seek help easier in the future instead of complaining about your situation.
Nicole: Keeping contact with your family is definitely one of the most important things in my opinion. Also, try to expand your social circle and meet new friends. That helped me handle my homesickness as I had new people who kept me company. Lastly, keep yourself busy and fill your schedule with activities to keep you distracted from feeling sad or lonely.
In conclusion, studying abroad isn’t as easy as some people may think, as you need to have enough mental preparation to leave and study in a new country.
By Lim Yong Jun