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Feature

Overseas exchange: Expectations vs reality

A semester abroad is a journey of self-discovery, as communication student Jayne Ong finds out

Exchange has always been touted as the “best semester” of university life. There is so much to look forward to, like a new environment and fresh faces, without the stress of scoring high marks since the modules you take come with just a "pass” or “fail” grade. On the flip side, some of these “perks” can turn into stressors, especially if you are an introvert like me.

Before I went on exchange in the United Kingdom (UK) last year, I had many expectations shaped by the stories of friends. Many of these did not pan out in reality. Here’s what I’ve learnt during my studies abroad at King’s College London.

Social life

Different landscape
My NTU friends and I on exchange at King’s College London.

Expectation

It will be difficult to make new friends due to cultural differences. I might not be able to understand new accents and vice versa. It will be tough to strike up a conversation.

Reality

Most of the students at my host university were far friendlier than I had anticipated. Sure, I encountered a few “pardon me?” and “excuse me?” moments before managing to get a conversation going, but it got better as we became accustomed to each other’s accents.

Also, just as you’d feel safer walking in the dark with a friend, socialising with my newfound international friends was somehow more enjoyable when there were a couple of NTU pals around. Indeed, on exchange, you’re unlikely to be the only Singaporean at the host university.

I vividly remember the first social event of the semester – a pizza party organised by my hall as part of Welcome Week. We had to push our way through the throng in the lounge to get our hands on the pizza before finding a place to sit. An international student suddenly approached us and introduced himself. I remember being amazed at how easily my friends slipped into conversation with him while I could only listen and occasionally nod or smile. As he moved away and we were joined by another group, I found that I had warmed up and was more ready to interact.

When there was a lull in the conversation, I would be “saved” by my more outspoken friends. As for the times when I was alone with strangers, such as during tutorials, those were when I was forced to step out of my comfort zone. On hindsight, I think that learning to socialise is definitely one of my most valuable takeaways from exchange.

Finance

Expectation

Exchange will cost a bomb, around S$13,000 to $15,000 or even more if you are based in the United States, the UK or Scandinavian countries where living expenses are high.

Reality

During my exchange, I spent the most on food. In London, the simplest way to penny-pinch is to cook your own meals. A home-cooked meal costs £3 (S$5.20) on average, while eating out could be three times more expensive.

Sweet treat
A popular fudge and brownie stall in Borough Market, my favourite market in London.

Visits to street markets tend to burn a big hole in your pocket as it is easy to go overboard enjoying small bites from the different food stalls. And making payments with your card makes it even harder to keep track of your expenditure.

Save & sound
The UNiDAYS app offers students wallet-friendly deals.

Thankfully, there are some ways to enjoy the pleasures of life within your means. First, exploit your status as a student. Other than the restaurants that offer discounts to students, I used apps like UNiDAYS to enjoy platform-exclusive offers for students. The discounts extend beyond food to beauty products and sports apparel.

I also found that it helped my budget to record my expenditure in the phone app on the move instead of doing a single stocktake at the end of the day. It was easy for me to inculcate this habit since I tend to use my phone to take pictures of the food before eating it.

Lastly, like me, you can consider using a pre-paid debit card that sends a notification after each purchase you make, which helps you track how much you are spending.

Time management

Chilling out
This was taken during my five-day trip to Iceland where the mountains look different every day.

Expectation

There would be more than enough time to study while exploring London and travelling to other nearby countries. I can easily pick up new hobbies while on exchange.

Reality

Time and tide wait for no man. At the start of the semester, I took my time settling into my dorm instead of stepping outside to explore London. It only struck me how little I had seen of the city when I was halfway through the semester. By then, assignment deadlines were looming and coupled with my travel plans to other countries, I was left with little time to explore the great capital. This is definitely one of my greatest regrets, and it is also a reminder that, perhaps, back in Singapore, I should also get out of my home more often.

Classic capital
The red double-decker bus is a common sight in London.

Academics

Expectation

The modules are just pass/fail, so they should be manageable. I don’t have to study as hard.

Reality

Don’t expect learning to be a walk in the park.

Since grades did not matter for the semester, I selected my modules in King’s based on interest instead of whether I could score well in them (while also making sure the ones I took could be matched to my modules in NTU). In addition to film studies, my home course, I took modules in theology and geography, which I have no background in. However, I soon realised this meant I had to put in more effort to understand the content taught in class.

To my knowledge
On my first day of school, I walked through this hall and was awed by its grandeur.

Nonetheless, I was happy with my choice of modules. The engaging teachers kept me motivated, and by the end of the semester, I felt that I had ventured into and learnt many new things.

Always remember that everyone’s experience of exchange is unique. The wonderful and scary stories you hear of exchange may not be yardsticks of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I, for one, would not exchange my exchange experience for the world.