Students studying abroad must strike a balance between study and social life

Studying abroad means striking a balance between the books and your social life – and making local friends is key.
Karen Pittar

Hannah Hye-eun Yang was born in South Korea, and that’s where her parents, brothers and grandparents still live.

But she has always felt a strong urge to explore the world. So when her mother suggested that she study abroad, Yang jumped at the chance. Now the 20-year-old is in her second year at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

“I was lucky, because I started learning English at about age five, so the language wasn’t a problem for me,” Yang says. “I had a choice between studying in New York and Canberra. I chose Canberra because I wanted to embark on a journey to a place I had never heard of.”

Students like Yang have settled into college life in a strange land well. But many others feel overwhelmed by the challenges it can pose: will they be able to fit in and make new friends, keep up academically and cope with being homesick?

“It is challenging for all students to leave home, develop independence and make decisions,” says Linda Magnussen, a certified planner with education advisory firm The Bertram Group.

“But an international student may well be adding a layer of language and cultural adjustments, too. There may also be academic structures and expectations that are very different from those at home.

“All students experience some degree of culture shock, but international students have more aspects of their environment to sort out and balance as they adjust to university life,” she says.

This adjustment process also applies to third-culture kids who have grown up in global cities such as Hong Kong, where their parents have relocated for work.

Consider the experience of Louis Bond Smith. Having lived in Hong Kong almost all his life, he was keen to study abroad to be more independent. He opted for Britain because both his parents are British.

Despite his heritage, he was surprised by some of the adjustments he had to make.

“It is slightly harder to get on with English people. I often get on better with internationals because we have more in common,” says Bond Smith, who has completed his first year in engineering at Durham University.

Although Britain is not foreign to him, he has never lived there. “I am unaware of so many things people there have grown up with – politics, TV, famous people,” he says.

The greater test was balancing his social activities with academic commitments. “That’s a skill I think most people get wrong in their first year,” he says.

Bond Smith achieved good grades, but it took discipline. “Lots of my friends did way too much sport or drinking and almost no work. They had to change that for their second year,” he says. “I finished my first year with lots of friends who have just finished their second year, I played lots of sport and loved it. When I needed to work more, my social life suffered. But sporting events are planned when there aren’t exams.

“There is a lot to do – work and otherwise – but it depends on who you are as to whether it’s a difficult balance. I didn’t find it particularly hard to get the balance right.”

Teenagers often face social pressure at university to drink, take drugs and party, education advisers all agree. This is something parents should broach with their child before they leave home. They should also ensure that the lines of communication remain open.

It is challenging for all students to leave home, develop independence and make decisions

“Have conversations about sexual activity, drug use, balancing academic and social life, and staying healthy,” says US university admissions consultant Deena Maerowitz.

“Try to give your child tools to cope with social pressure and establish what their own comfort zones are around specific behaviour. Encourage them to reach out to others on campus if they feel unsure about how to handle a specific situation,” says Maerowitz.

Hong Kong-based educational psychologist Tara Levinson urges parents to prepare early and start teaching children life skills – how to manage their time and look after themselves.

“In Hong Kong children are often not expected to participate in household chores. Having a sense of responsibility for the home – cleaning up, making beds, picking up your belongings – all are necessary life skills when sharing a space with roommates,” she says.

“Teach your child to make a budget, account for their expenses and figure out how to set and achieve both short- and long-term goals.”

Once the children are at school, encourage them to engage fully in their studies and seek help if they need it.

Magnussen says a little planning early on will go a long way to helping with good grades.

“Make sure they understand the requirements and expectations in each course and create a balance with courses they take in terms of level of work and type of work. Make sure your child develops a relationship with the faculty and teaching assistants and meets with them to review work or ask for feedback,” says Magnussen.

“Be proactive – if they are disappointed with an assignment, seek guidance for improvement. All universities have academic support, but students need to ask what is available and how to get it. Make the university work for you.”

Bond Smith says his advice to new students is to just get out there, make lots of different friends and throw themselves into activities.

“Students wanting to study abroad should consider the university and town they are going to. Some places have a lot [fewer] international students than others and, as a result, the international students end up only hanging out with each other. That is a shame.

“I strongly suggest internationals try to meet as many different people as possible. Meet people you normally wouldn’t hang around with. Don’t just stick to people who are similar to you or who come from near home.”

This is true for all students, says Bond Smith: “Use your experiences and stories as a way of meeting people and making friends, not as a barrier to doing so.”

Yang agrees. For her, one of the greatest benefits of studying at the ANU is its multicultural community. Yang is majoring in Japanese and relishes being part of an eclectic mix of students. “I am not a model student, so take my advice with a grain of salt,” she says.

“But don’t come to study abroad if you’re not passionate about learning and you are not going to be responsible for your education.”

Yang explains that “university” in Cantonese is dai hok dai meaning “big” and hok meaning “study”. “University is the place to study big, not apathetically.”