Grad School Abroad: The Pros and Cons
I started my year abroad in London in a stranger’s cold and damp flat, completely alone, save the cup of tea I desperately clutched to like a lifeline as I cried to my mom on FaceTime.
My mind spun like a record: This is too much, too unfamiliar, too uncomfortable. Why did I move to a foreign country without knowing anyone? What the hell was I thinking?
Fast forward to today, marking three years since that anxiety-ridden day, where I sit snug up in my North London flat with my dreamy British boyfriend, a crackling fire as my soundtrack, and a cup of tea in hand (because England). I’ve successfully stayed in the UK well past my stint as a student to run the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, and if I have any say, I’m never leaving.
From reeling moments of anxiety so acute I could taste them, to the euphoric bliss of giving into my wanderlust soul - moving to a new country to pursue grad school has been one of the most challenging yet most fulfilling experiences I’ve had to date. Should you feel bold enough to brave the inevitable whirlwind of a journey that moving abroad entails, then consider the following list of pros and cons as you mull over your grad school options (hopefully with a cup of tea!):
We’ll begin with the cons:
1. Studying abroad lays down some serious distance between your family and friends. For me, this wasn’t as much of an issue, as my immediate family is now spread across the world in a hopeless attempt to calm our nomadic spirits. But we spin the unfortunate distance between us into travel opportunities - and we never have to pay for a hotel!
2. For a time, you will feel very alone. Moving to a different country full of new people and unfamiliar places means starting life over again. Building a community of people you love and trust and finding your local haunts, like that hole in the wall taco place (they do exist in the UK!), takes time and patience. Expect nights alone. But do not resign yourself to loneliness - enjoy your downtime and balance your calendar with social events. I joined yoga studios, book clubs, university societies, and even made a friend through my cat’s Instagram - we ended up going to Barcelona for a week on holiday (yes you read that sentence correctly).
3. Cultural shock can be dizzying. Having previously lived in London, I thought I would be thoroughly unfazed by my return to British culture - particularly because it doesn’t seem far removed from American culture. Somehow, it knocked me harder this time around. Simple things, like a lack of iced tea or the tendency for buses to change destination mid route threw me for a wild loop. But just like anything, you learn to adjust.
4. Different educational systems are exactly that - different. It takes some calibrating, and a serious level of time management and self-motivation to adjust to a new style of learning and instruction. For example, I had to shift from the US evaluation style of frequent projects, essays, and homework to evaluation by a single essay at the end of each term, and one large dissertation. Intimidating, to say the least.
5. You build your network in a country where you most likely won’t continue living. People in graduate programs generally have specific career ideas that directly link to their course of study. It’s undoubtably inspiring to be surrounded by such drive and passion, but that means the connections you build will be of an international nature, and depending on your end goal, might not be as useful if you’re moving back to the States after your program ends.
And now, the pros:
1. You will be pushed far outside your comfort zone. For me this is a pro, because my confused little brain seems to thrive on chasing after the next shiny new thing (probably not healthy, but almost always fun!).
2. The ease of access to travel opportunities and different cultures, depending on your university of choice, will be astounding. In one year, on a tight student budget, I travelled to Morocco, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. London itself is an exceptionally international city, and it is the norm to hear at least one different language every day. The proximity to such a wide array of human experiences has made a lasting impact on how I view the world, understand humanity, and live my day to day life.
3. Education doesn’t just happen in the classroom. You will learn very difficult but important lessons about your identity as an American, and how US politics influences the world - for good and for bad. I’m still amazed by how much everyone I meet in Europe knows about American politics, and how still at times, I am held personally accountable for the failings of our government. As we navigate a Trump administration, the frustration with his politics will surely continue to increase, but if you can engage in these conversations with an open mind and a willingness to listen, you will find yourself growing into a more compassionate and self-aware person than ever before.
4. It’s a nonstop adventure. For better or worse, you will have a year jam packed with thrill and opportunity. There are always more lectures to attend, markets to explore, food to eat, places to travel, and people to learn from. (This is also why time management is key.) Boredom hardly seems an option when you go abroad.
5. Ultimately, you will come out the other side a seasoned, wiser, and more insightful person. A few of my classmates were eager to return to their home country, and then there are people like me, who refuse to go back. Each experience is different, each will be challenging, and each will be rewarding.