As a junior semester abroad (JSA) student from the USA, there’s only so much you can learn about British culture from watching the BBC. There are certain things to expect, such as the invitation to “have tea”, walk down adorable cobblestone streets, and see “Wellies” (Welly boots) galore. But there are still misconceptions that Americans carry about life in the UK, as I found out only too well during my stay at St Andrews.
Just because you share English as a language does not mean you will understand what the other person is saying. More than once I ended up staring blankly at a store manager or someone on the sidewalk (or ‘pavement’) as they talked to me – they were speaking English, but not the kind I was used to. It wasn’t merely the delivery, though a strong Scottish accent certainly challenges your comprehensive abilities. It was the language itself.
As I came to learn, even the simplest of words don’t all have the same meanings in British and American English. Take “pants”. In Britain, this means lingerie, while the American version conjures up images of the brand names Levi’s and American Eagle. Also, the word “eraser” doesn’t exist in British English – they call it a “rubber”. There are many more odd linguistic idiosyncrasies, but I’ll stop here so as to not spoil the fun of finding out yourself.
Furthermore, in St Andrews stores close at around 4 or 5pm, unlike in the States or indeed most British cities. If you wish to make a purchase, don’t wait until after you’ve eaten dinner – go shopping directly after classes. There aren’t tons of places open to eat after 10pm when the studying munchies hit you, either. Be ready to stock up on snacks before you get back to your dorm, have enough change to hit up the vending machine, or walk to Tesco, the grocery store (and even that closes at midnight).
When it comes to academic matters, there isn’t always homework due every day or every other day, so it’s easy to forget to stay caught up on things. Make sure you do! A semester abroad is mostly about travelling, meeting new people and experiencing another country, but you need to remember that you are, in fact, enrolled in a university and not merely on a gap year. Months of revelry can go horribly wrong if you slip behind on your studies, and good memories can sour when all you remember about life in Scotland is crushing end-of-semester exam stress.
But, as I said – a JSA is mostly about life, not work. Experience life and everything you can while abroad. Even if you think it’s weird or might taste funny, DO IT! You have one shot at taking in everything that St Andrews – one of the most striking and incredible places in the world – has to offer. Don’t think twice, because a second chance probably won’t come again. Go everywhere.
First, see as much of Scotland as you can. I recommend joining the outdoor club, Breakaway, which provides opportunities for hiking trips in the staggeringly beautiful Scottish wilderness. Those trips are something I still talk about a year later. For more conventional destinations, bus tours are nice way to both see major tourist places and make new friends. The buses to and from larger Scottish locales are relatively cheap, and the cities are well worth going to. Second, go EVERYWHERE! Europe is small and plane and train tickets are cheap. Travel is easy and fun – go with a friend, go with a group, it’s easy to find adventurous people here.
But, as the Beach Boys once said, be true to your school – in light of the fact that you chose to come to Scotland, you need to make sure to participate in Scottish tradition. So, above all, GO TO A CEILIDH! It will be a sad day if you leave without dancing in one – full of fun and men with kilts.
The most important piece of advice, though, is to be open to all. Befriend people. Your friends and academic family (you’ll find out what that is soon, and you will be so happy that you did) are going to be people you’ll want to remember forever. Get to know them and take tons of pictures and videos so that your semester in Scotland will be one you can look back on for years to come.