Fears vs. Reality When Studying Abroad
When getting ready to study abroad, anxiety is one of the most common and significant emotions I have seen in people, myself included. Fears about what the experience would be like, how they will adapt to living in such a different environment, and how school in a foreign country may differ from what they were used to. This makes a lot of sense, as big changes like studying abroad are very jarring and come with many difficulties. However, in my experience, many of the anxieties I worried about before going to Sweden turned out to be my favorite aspects of the experience.
My biggest fear going into the program was the differences between the Swedish and American educational systems. When I choose the RIT exchange program at Malmo University in Sweden and began enrolling in my courses for the semester abroad, I learned that Swedish schools operate differently than schools in the U.S. In Swedish higher education, it is common for students to select an “academic theme” for the semester rather than choosing multiple courses like we do in the States. The academic theme is a course that is broken into modules that you take for one or two months at a time. It is possible to take different courses outside of the theme, but it requires careful planning to make sure class times do not conflict. Until I arrived in Sweden, I was worried I would have trouble adapting to this new system, since I did not know how it worked.
However, after spending a few weeks taking the thematic courses I had signed up for, I was happy to find that I much preferred the Swedish education system. My courses focused on the functions and bodies of the United Nations, which was capped off with a model United Nations project where the entire class drafted a mock resolution. I also took a smaller course in addition to my main area of study, which taught basic Swedish and some essential elements of Swedish culture. The subject matter of both of these areas was unfamiliar to me, as my coursework at RIT is focused on technology and interactive media. While Malmo University offered coursework on topics I was more familiar with, I wanted the chance to branch out of my comfort zone. My preference is something that will differ from person to person, but in my opinion, Sweden and much of Europe have many protections in place to help students who do not adapt as well to their local educational practices. For instance, in many European countries, it is commonplace to allow for retakes of exams if you score below a threshold. This practice makes adapting to new academic structures far easier than you would expect and assuaged my fears about the difference in academic structure abroad quickly.
I also had concerns about my ability to make friends abroad, especially while the pandemic is still a factor. My fears about this were dashed even faster than they were for academics. I quickly found several avenues to make friends. The housing I lived in was a dorm-like setup where many different people had individual rooms but shared a common space and kitchen, so I got to know a lot of people quickly. In addition, my host university, Malmö University, had several programs at the start of the semester for exchange and international students, where I got the chance to meet fellow travelers. Upon arriving and speaking to the other students, I was surprised to find that despite them hailing from across Europe and in some cases, across the globe, most students spoke English. Swedes, and Scandinavians as a whole, generally speak very good English, as it is taught in schools from an early age. Students who come from abroad are expected to show a high level of proficiency in English to be accepted into universities. English is used in Sweden as a bridge to connect people from all across Europe who speak different native languages, creating a large melting pot of different cultures and people. This made making friends for me even easier, as there was often no language barrier at all (though people were often excited to hear me give my best try at speaking to them in their language). The last of the immediate places I made friends was in class. I got the chance to meet many other students interested in the same things as me just by socializing before and after class sessions and asking for help on homework. I was excited to find that the student body in my classes was just as diverse as in the dorms. People came from all over the world to study in Sweden, and I got to interact with people of more varied backgrounds than I do at home.
If one or more of these avenues for getting to know other people isn’t available to you on your program, fear not! There are plenty of other ways of making friends abroad, and I would encourage you to pursue them even if you have the same easy opportunities I did. Joining clubs or study groups is a great way to meet people. You can also just wander around whatever interesting city you find yourself in. Not everyone is social with strangers, especially not in Sweden, where social norms lead to people being far more private and reserved in public spaces than in the U.S., but there are things like farmer’s markets or festivals in most cities where it is more natural to start conversations and get to know people. In addition, getting to know people online can be a great way to form connections. Most cities and universities have something like a Facebook page where you can organize or join events. Meeting new, diverse people is one of the most rewarding parts of living abroad, and you should take every chance to do it, even if it is scary at first.
Overall, nearly all the things I was worried about when considering studying abroad ended up being far easier to resolve than I thought. By tackling my fears head-on, I made friends, excelled academically, and learned a lot about myself and a different part of the world. If I could give advice to someone who is unsure about studying abroad, it would be not to let fear guide your decision making, because more often than not you will end up loving the experience for the very reasons you were scared.
Nic Lande is a 4th year Digital Humanities, Computing and Design major who studied abroad in Sweden in Spring 2022.