Study Abroad- what it’s really like to do an exchange far, far from Trinity
Caoimhe Gordon speaks to four students who chose to spend a year studying in far flung locations
Every year, the opportunity presents itself for students to take a leap of faith, leave the cobbled paths of Front Square behind for a semester or two in order to fulfil their academic destiny of studying in a college far, far away. While some opt for the countries of Europe to fine-tune their language skills or to avail of continental living by becoming enamoured with cheap bus services to cities far and wide, others are more partial to far-flung locations.
These students fill our newsfeeds with pictures from various jaunts around America, Australia and Asia. Apart from all the photo ops, what is it really like to participate in an exchange far from home?
Claire McGregor, JS History – North America
“Football is like a religion here and tailgates before the games are not optional if you have any sort of social life. Also EVERYBODY follows the team and actually gets significantly upset if we lose.”
My first impression upon arriving at Notre Dame was surprise at how much it lived up to the classic American college stereotype. Everything from the dorm rooms (and roommates), dining halls and cheerleaders to beer-pong at keg fuelled house-parties and the football games was exactly like the movies. One of the first differences I quickly discovered about studying in the States was the attitude to going to lectures and classes.
Everyone buys all the required books for class before the start of term and nobody tends to frequently miss class (in most modules 3 missed classes is an automatic fail). It was a real eye-opener when my 9am Tuesday class was consistently full, and not missing most students busy sleeping off last night’s Dicey’s (although I suppose I would have the same attitude if my tuition was $68,000 a year). Constant papers, mid-terms, finals and quizzes keep you very busy throughout the year, so in terms of teaching they do somewhat get their money’s worth.
The dorm system in Notre Dame really takes care of you. In addition to getting fed in a dining hall everyday it does feel like your independence has taken a few steps back from studying and living in Dublin. I’ve always been a mediocre cook, so I’m quite happy to have my meals made for me every day and it is an incredibly convenient, if slightly repetitive ‘boarding school-esque’ system. The isolated campus, complete with two lakes, a basilica, and picturesque tree-lined running paths is a far-cry from city centre Trinity and does provide a slightly more relaxing environment, although I do miss the easy availability of shops, cafes, pubs and clubs.
The nightlife around Notre Dame essentially consists of three pretty grimy dive bars or intensely sweaty on-campus ‘dorm parties’. Football is like a religion here and tailgates before the games are not optional if you have any sort of social life. Also EVERYBODY follows the team and actually gets significantly upset if we lose.
The November election was a very bizarre and shocking experience because Notre Dame is reasonably unique among the larger US colleges as being a very conservative, Catholic school where many students would be from Republican backgrounds. While I encountered many students and staff who had the standard European, liberal, democratic views that we in Trinity are so used to, I was surprised by how many young, highly educated people I met who were willing to support and vote for Trump so that they weren’t voting ‘against their party’, or who had decided to abstain or were simply not registered to vote at all. From talking to friends in Californian universities I know my mid-western American election experience was very different from theirs, where the result provoked campus-wide mourning and demonstrations.
Although I do miss Trinity, studying in Notre Dame is an amazing experience, the sporting opportunities are incredible, the students are generally very friendly and the staff are very keen to help you out. The opportunity to use the exchange as a base to travel around the states and Canada is not one I would easily give up (although the lack of an American Ryanair equivalent means it can get pretty pricey!).
Catherine Corrigan, former BESS student – Shanghai
“By the time I left, I could order my food, negotiate in the markets and speak to my taxi drivers, so what more did I need? Although we all had those days where we didn’t really know what we were eating!”
Shanghai may seem like an unusual choice for an exchange and it might not have the same lure as American colleges but it was definitely one of the best choices I made while at Trinity. As a business and economics student the opportunity to get a chance to study and live in one of the biggest financial hubs in the world was second to none. It was a very challenging and very rewarding opportunity and one I couldn’t recommend enough to anyone sitting on the fence about applying to study in China.
As a student with no Mandarin, simple tasks could be a lot more taxing, and there was nothing to prepare us for the culture shock, but Shanghai was a really international city to live in. By the time I left, I could order my food, negotiate in the markets and speak to my taxi drivers, so what more did I need? Although we all had those days where we didn’t really know what we were eating!
The best thing about studying in Shanghai was learning about the Chinese perspective on how to do business and how to operate in an economy like China, where regulations seem tougher and internet restrictions are tighter. Another amazing opportunity was created by the Irish chamber of commerce that set up a mentorship programme for the Irish students to meet with those working in Shanghai which meant I got to go to the LEGO offices, the Apple offices and EY! This was a great way to get direct contact with people that are doing business in China and it was one of the best ways to learn.
While I was away I was just enjoying my time, meeting people, going to classes and enjoying the nightlife Shanghai had on offer – which included ladies’ night in some of the most exclusive places in the city! What I didn’t realise at the time was how much my experience was going to help me in the future. Every final year class I took in business centred on China because of its global importance and those topics just became second nature for me.
It was tough and challenging and some days I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but when all was said and done I would do it all over again and I’m so jealous of anyone that gets the opportunity to go. I never thought I would study somewhere as far away as China but I’m so glad I did it and I learned so much inside, as well as outside, the classroom!
Kerry Dwyer, JS BESS – Singapore
“With personal study booths, group project rooms, learning labs, multiple lounge and ‘nap’ areas as well as a food court, cafes and access to a brand new gym, they leave you with no excuse to venture far from the library.”
In order to understand studying in Singapore, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of Singapore as a whole. For anyone who has seen or read The Hunger Games, the island’s one-party system does not differ hugely. With a rigorous legal system that still includes the death penalty, anyone who steps out of line will know all about it. However, the island is a pretty easy place to live with neighbourhoods planned to have equal proportions of every ethnicity, impressively low levels of homelessness, spotless streets (without a public bin in sight) and extremely efficient transport.
Singapore Management University (SMU) could be seen as an emblem of Singapore – spotless, orderly, happy, safe and successful, but also partially pretentious, rigid and narrow minded.
As SMU is the youngest university in a quickly developing country, their enthusiasm for education is one that cannot go unremarked from the moment you step foot in the complex.
As a management university it is a great place to network, attend talks by different CEOs and gain an insight into the way they think about business and economics from an Eastern perspective but also from a number of other views in a country that is so multicultural and has quite a Western focus too.
The modern, high-comfort facilities they provide highlight the importance with which they regard their students and ensuring they fulfil their potential. With personal study booths, group project rooms, learning labs, multiple lounge and ‘nap’ areas as well as a food court, cafes and access to a brand new gym, they leave you with no excuse to venture far from the library. This excuse however, is not something Singaporean students look for.
SMU could be compared to Wall Street in a way. While the students there are the best of the best, they are under massive pressure from a ‘GPA race’ to get the returns from their investments, or the results from their study. For many SMU students, studying is a form of enjoyment. Overnight stays in the library are not uncommon and in fact, they are considered an achievement to boast about.
Apart from the importance of results, SMU places a major emphasis on group project work. Unlike at home where we avoid any sort of presentation at all costs, SMU students seek it out and modules with greater result weighting for presentations tend to be in higher demand. I ended up being unable to avoid presentations even though the majority of my courses were finance based and would usually entail a very small amount of group work. Having had five presentations this semester, I was forced out of my comfort zone and into an area of expertise among SMU students. Even their PowerPoint skills were on another level to ours, meaning I couldn’t even offer to put the presentation together to avoid presenting.
The campus reminds me of a ‘sci-fi’, modern Trinity in a way. Situated in the city centre, right at the top of the famous, bustling Orchard Road, the discipline not to finish up early and go for a bit of window shopping or for a few drinks with friends is something we could learn from. Or maybe it’s just the outrageous cost of alcohol and shopping that makes the La Ka Shing library more attractive…
Christopher Barry, Final Year BBS – Sydney, Australia
“[…]when you’re swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, sunning yourself on Bondi beach or hanging out by the Opera House, all the hard work of getting there, via summer jobs and studying for exams, made it all worth it – and more.”
From my experience, being on exchange is the easy part. It was the getting there that was far more strenuous. Between applications, exams, waiting, more waiting, emailing, phoning and more waiting, the end of January finally arrived and I was ready for the big move for semester two of third year.
Sydney was a place that had always fascinated me, largely due to a seven-year allegiance to Home and Away that helped get me through secondary school. This was usually followed by a laugh by most locals because, as it turns out, very few of them actually watch it. Having arrived after spending an exhilarating month in New Zealand, a truly beautiful and wonderful country, I was fortunate to arrive in Oz halfway through February, which was nearing the end of its summer. Throughout my time I became accustomed to constant blue skies, one of the biggest differences compared to Ireland. Living in student accommodation helped massively in meeting new people and I made friends for life, some of whom I have already met up with in Berlin.
The high standards of the University of Sydney, although expected, was still a pleasant surprise. As a Business student, I was fortunate enough to be part of the first cohort of students that occupied their new modern building. It made me a little jealous of future Business students here in Trinity! Studying four modules over there, my final pick was randomly enough, Environmental Politics. This was by far the most interesting module I have ever taken and has sparked an interest that I expect will last far beyond my six months in Australia. Another standout experience was having dinner with George Bush’s former speechwriter and a close friend of the Clintons – a totally bizarre situation that could only happen on exchange!
One huge advantage in going to an English speaking country was not only did it make meeting people infinitely easier, but everyday tasks like going to the shop for example, were made so much simpler by not having a language barrier in place. This was a common complaint I heard from friends who were in places like Germany and France. Despite all the crazy cultures you fly over on your way to Australia, they do share a lot in common with the Irish, like not taking themselves too seriously and generally enjoying themselves.
Sydney itself was pretty expensive but getting a job over there certainly helped minimize the costs – the minimum wage was $18 dollars (nearly €12 an hour). The living costs were similar to those in Dublin, although travelling across this massive country could be pricey. The truth is, however, when you’re swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, sunning yourself on Bondi beach or hanging out by the Opera House, all the hard work of getting there, via summer jobs and studying for exams, made it all worth it – and more.
To first years considering going away, and second years looking forward to their exchange next year, I can only speak from my own experience in saying that my time in Australia was far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. The lifestyle over there is a far cry from an average day in Dublin. If you’re doubtful about going, take a chance. Academically you’ll benefit from a totally different way of learning and teaching, and by the time you’re ready to come home you’ll have survived at least one semester by yourself in a totally different country – quite a feat, all things considered!
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