Culture shock: St Andreans abroad

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Illustration of a globe
Illustration: Gabrielle Wolf
Illustration of a globe
Illustration: Gabrielle Wolf

With the start of the new academic year, many third-years will have had to say goodbye to close friends as they depart on a new adventure: a study abroad programme.

This is an exciting time for those lucky enough to have secured a spot on a programme. A strong academic record is necessary in order to be accepted; a minimum of 13.5 as an average grade in second year is required. With opportunities to explore diverse cultures, develop language skills and meet new friends, it is no wonder that students from all departments set their sights on a semester or year abroad.

Many students in the UK spend their university careers alternating between working hard and partying hard, yet this isn’t the same in other countries. University culture varies considerably from country to country, often stumping students from the UK and leaving them feeling somewhat out of place while they get their bearings. While some study abroad students return home with buzzing stories of late-night adventures, passion-filled romances and a new appreciation for food, other students can feel let down by what was promised to be the best experience of their lives.

One student who experienced a very different culture to St Andrews on his study abroad programme is George Deacon. Mr Deacon’s exchange experience in Hong Kong was very work-focused. For him, student life, even beyond the classroom, resembled that of a strict school, rather than what a St Andrean might recognise as the ‘university lifestyle.’

The main way Mr Deacon managed to make friends with local students was through playing basketball. He noticed that “a lot of the local social life revolved around playing games like Mahjong, which is a traditional game, or online games.”

Much of the focus of his semester abroad was on his studies as students generally didn’t take part in any other university-centred activities. Mr Deacon explained that while there were few societies to choose from, he enjoyed taking part in Model United Nations. Aside from a lack of extracurriculars, Mr Deacon also noted that local and foreign students seemed somewhat divided, with the two groups very rarely integrating apart from in lectures and tutorials.

Another student who is experiencing a radically different culture through his study abroad programme is James Bluck, a modern languages student who has just started his semester abroad in Russia. He described feeling like an outsider when he first arrived, but explained that “every foreigner feels like an outsider in Russia.” Mr Bluck was initially quite surprised by how unhelpful the general population in the streets seemed to be, but has now gotten used to it. He credits this unfriendliness to the emphasis placed on distinguishing who is Russian, and who is a foreigner. He has observed that this difference seems to be very important to the people there.

With regards to university culture itself, there is a major difference between university cultures here and in Russia when it comes to involvement within the student community. According to Mr Bluck, there is only one university library, which students have to register to independently of university. As a result, many students study in private. There is no dedicated student union for nights out, and only a few societies.

Another issue that Mr Bluck has noticed is the lack of personal freedoms in Russia. This has come as a shock to him after having lived in open-minded and progressive communities in the UK, the rest of Europe and America. As the previous Vice-President of Saints LGBT+, Mr Bluck was very involved the organisation of the first pride parade in St Andrews, and is a committed activist for gay rights. However, in Russia the attitudes towards homosexuality and feminism seem to be very divided. These issues are often seen as “diseases from Europe,” and many people publicly express their hatred for such causes. “I’ve met gay people here who can’t tell their friends because they publicly express their hatred of gays,” Mr Bluck explained.

Despite all the difficulties in adjusting to this different way of thinking, Mr Bluck is thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to improve his Russian and is hoping that by the end of his semester abroad he’ll have truly mastered the language and have got to grips with the culture. In terms of academic differences, Mr Bluck said, “The teaching has been in groups of eight people throughout the course, and will continue that way.”

One student that has flourished during the weeks of her study abroad programme is Mathilde Coutte, who is doing a joint degree in international relations with St Andrews and the College of William & Mary. She spent her first year in St Andrews, and is now in Virginia, USA, completing her second year . Her first impression: Americans are very talkative and enjoy socialising. Despite arriving as a new student, Ms Coutte quickly made friends. Having grown up in a French community in London, she felt a stark difference in how open fellow American students were. In terms of academic work, Ms Coutte said that her “life is more balanced.”

The College of William & Mary assigns more coursework than the University of St Andrews, so students spend more of their days in libraries studying. This, however, doesn’t stop them from taking part in a number of university societies, as well as a ending their fair share of house parties. According to Miss Coutte, “there is more of an emphasis on joining societies and being a part of the university community in the States than in Scotland.” There are also some stereotypical differences between American and British university culture – one that springs to mind is the importance of fraternities and sororities in US colleges.

While the University St Andrews made the news back in 2014 when it was named by Alpha Epsilon Pi as a target location for setting up a branch of its fraternity, fraternities are still far from being the norm in the University. The Kate Kennedy Club is the closest thing that we have to this kind of institution, so red cup parties, beer pong and hazing rituals are still a far off fantasy for those within ‘The Bubble’.

Clearly there are a number of differences in university culture across the world, often rejecting the typical and sometimes stereotypical aspects of cultures of that country.

Ultimately, however, the emphasis on getting a good education is the same, regardless of institution. It is all about gathering new experiences, good and bad. There would be no point flying across the world, only to stay hidden in a room, subsisting of a stash of comfort foods from home.

Making friends with local students, going to their events and exploring their local cities, markets and landmarks are all part and parcel of a study abroad programme. The differences (or similarities) of foreign university life can be somewhat surprising, but certainly worth it.

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