Even before I went to University, I knew I wanted to study abroad. The idea of staying in a new country and being given a unique opportunity is something I desired. It took a fair amount of effort studying, planning, thinking, saving, writing, interviewing, sacrificing, applying and emailing to get here. But now I’m here, I’m doing it Mom, I made it, and this is my story.
My name is Harry Gunning, and this semester I am studying abroad at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. I was born and raised in Scarborough, North Yorkshire but truly found myself at St Andrews, and now, I find myself in New Zealand. I am studying for an integrated master’s degree in Marine Biology and have found this additional opportunity to be one big crazy adventure.
Studying abroad has been, without a doubt, one of the most challenging, rewarding and gratifying experiences of my life. Landing in a city, knowing no one, and attempting to pave a way for myself wasn’t easy, but eventually I got there. I saw my study abroad experience as a challenge, something to be tackled and succeeded at. I think it is going okay so far.
It was one of the strangest feelings leaving behind everything I called comfortable and safe in St Andrews. It felt almost counter-intuitive to leave behind what I’ve known and loved for the past two and a bit years, to venture onto a plane and fly into the complete unknown. However, one of the best bits of advice I ever got was to ‘Just do it and say yes to everything’, and so far, it hasn’t let me down.
My day begins at around 9am, waking up in the bustling city centre to the predictable sounds of car alarms and building works (You get used to it). I live on a shared floor, owned by a private landlord. It’s not affiliated with the University and has the cheapest rent around. Unsurprisingly, the student housing crisis isn’t limited to the UK and even here I was pushed to look for cheaper, dodgy, private accommodation. It’s not bad, but not great either. However, that is all part of the experience of being an international exchange student.
University life is different here: students only study three-year degrees, and they have never heard of Greggs or Tesco. The campus is pretty huge, offering up plenty of space and facilities for around 50,000 undergraduates. The international and exchange programme is also clear and strong, with dedicated housing, events and societies aimed just for international students.
It felt strange during my orientation week, as I sat in a lecture hall filled with 500 or so other exchange students just like me, being lectured on how to catch a bus and walk from A to B. When getting to know us, the lecturer asked, “stand up if you’re from the UK” and only 4 people stood up. That’s when it hit me, that I was actually far away from home and almost on my own. In the end, I played this to my advantage and quickly became known as, ‘the tall Brit’ amongst the exchange group.
Overall, I settled in pretty quickly. It was strange and hard at first, but soon became easier and easier. I was lucky that my St Andrean academic dad, who I grew to know and love over raisin weekend, had just moved to Auckland. He looked after me for the first couple days. It was so nice to see a familiar face at the airport after 24 hours of travel, and it was a great way to start my time in New Zealand.
In general, my workload is pretty similar to that of a typical St Andrews science student with probably a few extra essays. I have four modules to complete, each with three lectures a week, three pieces of coursework each, and their own exam. One major difference between being a St Andrews exchange student compared to about 70% of other exchange students is that our grades count towards our overall degree mark. This makes a huge difference when planning free time, adventures and partying. As this semester counts towards my overall degree, I really have to work on my ‘study:fun’ balance to ensure I stay on target. It can sometimes be hard to turn down fun opportunities, but thankfully there are plenty to choose from.
As the international community is so welcoming, there is rarely an evening where I don’t have anything on. Whether it’s nights out, movies or city-wide events, I often find myself turning down more opportunities than looking for them. On arrival, I joined the university running club because it was active, friendly, free and an easy way to make friends and get fit at the same time. I have even signed up for a half marathon, which I will be running later in the semester.
The weekends are when the fun stuff happens. Find yourself a group of like-minded individuals, hire a car, and go do whatever you feel like doing. In a country that most people will only visit with the sole purpose of travelling, this is the best attitude to have. As exchange students we all realise how lucky we are to be here, as well as understand that we only have a limited time in the country, so we spend most weekends ‘making the most of it’.
So far I have: climbed endless mountains and volcanoes, swum with dolphins, seals and rays and seen glaciers, beaches and the Milky Way all in one day. I have also taken on the role of volunteer snorkel instructor at a number of marine reserves around the country.
My most memorable trip was to the South Island of New Zealand with eight close friends for 12 days. We booked flights, arranged a car and went. This was our biggest opportunity to travel and oh boy did we travel! In less than two weeks we drove just under 2000km, hiked around 160km and fell in love with the sweet combination scent of unwashed clothes, eight people and one minivan. Before I came, I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to afford to travel anywhere, but now I have shown myself that I can do it, I appreciate it even more.
Those who know me best, know how much I have struggled to fund my university career so far. I’d love to say that studying abroad is easily affordable but it isn’t. You will have to spend a lot of extra time and money preparing for this adventure, to set yourself up and have an enjoyable time, but trust me, it’s worth it. You have to be extremely motivated and want it more than anything in the world, to make it worth it in the end. As soon as I get back, I’m going to be working 2 jobs and living off rice and beans just to make the next month’s rent, but I’d have it no other way.
If I had any advice for anyone who was thinking twice about studying abroad because of financing, think creatively and look at the big picture. Occasionally, sacrifices in the months beforehand can have big impacts on the future. If anyone is struggling to fund themselves, the university also offers a great money advice service to help get you on the right track.
My time abroad has been incredible, and I initially found it hard to put into words. I enjoy challenging myself, meeting new people and experiencing new things. Since arriving I have made a great set of friends with whom I have shared many crazy adventures with. I have also learnt a lot about myself and what I’m willing to work for and what I’m not.
Before I left St Andrews, my best friends gave me a final piece of advice… ‘Make the most of it’ and I know that is what I have done. I know I wouldn’t be here without them, and being away from them has certainly been the hardest part for me. Being away from friends and loved ones is challenging, but you make it work. I’m pretty used to seeing their faces on the laptop screen now, and I know that when I return we will just pick up from where we left off. I know that they are supporting me and want me to be here, and that’s what is important.
My final advice to anyone thinking of or planning their study abroad is, work hard. St Andrews gives you a unique opportunity and it is definitely within your reach. You just have to be determined and be prepared to put in the effort to get you to where you want to be. Once you arrive, you will soon realise why you applied, and probably not want to go back to our Auld Grey Toon.
If you liked the sound of studying abroad and want more info then please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or check out the study abroad website.