Goals, grades and good times: studying abroad in the USA

Despite concerns about getting homesick, Sarah Anderson spent years planning and researching study abroad opportunities in the USA. The final-year Bachelor of Commerce /Bachelor of Media (PR + Advertising) student recently returned from a semester studying marketing and international business courses at the University of Maryland.

“I’m so glad I did it. It was literally the best time of my life. I’m kinda worried my life has peaked now, nothing will ever live up to it,” Sarah said. 

Studying abroad was an ideal educational experience for Sarah, who aims to work in marketing for the tourism / aviation industries. Sarah wanted to study in a location that would be convenient for more travel. She also wanted the full USA college experience seen in Hollywood movies: living in a typical dorm, eating in dining halls, going to frat parties and football games. 

“USA college culture is so crazily different. Nearly everyone lives on campus, even though most of their families live nearby, whereas here most people commute every day. And the students don’t have jobs, college is their entire life, whereas here I think we have a bit more of a balanced lifestyle. It definitely was like living in a bubble.”

Sarah said she easily adapted to the cultural difference thanks to an ‘incredible and thorough’ orientation for all exchange students. It was her first time living out of home and she was made to feel instantly welcomed and supported. The three-day cultural introduction ensured everyone understood what to expect, from the correct way to reference in assessments to ending a conversation politely, tipping, and personal safety.

Sarah believes the different cultural experience has broadened her mind and will help with her future career in marketing. The Robert H Smith School of Business at Maryland University took students on a two-day visit to New York City marketing agencies. The agencies included a start-up, a small events marketing company, and the headquarters of Ogilvy - a global behemoth with one hundred and twenty-three offices in eighty-three countries.

During the visit, Sarah gained insights to help her make better-informed decisions about which employers to approach. She will be able to demonstrate her potential to employers using the characteristics and skills developed in the overall experience of studying abroad.

“I was very proactive in doing research. There was so much to consider when choosing a college. But going on exchange also displays things like stepping out of my comfort zone; and taking responsibility for planning and getting things done in time, like organising visas, course credit transfers and keeping to a budget,” she said.

“These are all things I can now speak about in an interview.” 

An important part of her research involved reading the returning student questionnaire responses in the Study Abroad module on Moodle, the UNSW student online learning management system. 

“No matter what marketing material the university might have, you just want to know from a real person what they think about the university and what the vibe is,” Sarah said.

Finding courses that matched her UNSW Business School study plan required a lot of attention to detail - there were more than seventy USA colleges to choose from. With assistance from UNSW Study Abroad and Exchange,  Sarah narrowed her preferences down to six.  

“You can book appointments with UNSW Study Abroad and Exchange with the advisor for your region. Their office is on campus so you can also just drop in and ask them anything,” she said.

Sarah said the easiest part of the application was applying for the government’s OS HELP loan, which was added to her HECS-HELP debt. Sarah’s key piece of advice to people considering study abroad is to save up as much money as you can, so you can say yes to as many things as possible.

“People are going to invite you on trips and you don’t want to have to say no. I did some really cool things, like a helicopter ride in the Grand Canyon, a hot air balloon ride in Arizona, I drove my own speedboat in San Diego, I travelled to New York, and Canada,” she said.  

Sarah said the most challenging part of studying abroad was surprisingly not homesickness, as she’d expected, but coming home. 

“It’s the uncertainty about where my life is going at the moment. The exchange was something I’d prepared for, for years. You don’t really think about what’s going to happen when it ends! But I’m really lucky because two of my best friends I met on exchange also turned out to be UNSW students who I now see all the time in Sydney… and I got to come back here in summer. I think that helped.”

As a final piece of advice for people undertaking study abroad, Sarah shared something she found useful on a returning student questionnaire.

“Wake up every morning and be grateful. You’re so lucky to be there. This might be the only chance you have in life to have such an amazing, life-changing experience and it will be over before you know it.”

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