Beyond the glamour: The reality of being a student abroad

  • jeune etudiante seule
Published on 2024-05-22 at 10:00 by Estelle
Being an international student is more than just an adventure; it's an opportunity to learn, grow, and lose yourself in the charm of foreign cultures. But don't be fooled by the Instagram photos that only show the highlights. Behind every snapshot is a brave student facing real daily challenges. Here's a look into international student life through several testimonials.

Language barrier and administrative hurdles

One of the first difficulties students face when they arrive in a foreign country is the language barrier. Communicating with locals, following courses, or even shopping can be a real challenge if you don't speak the local language. However, this obstacle can also be an opportunity to learn a new language and enrich oneself culturally.

Interestingly (or perhaps not), administrative formalities abroad are often intertwined with language problems. Between visas, residence permits, numerous forms to fill out, university entry documents, or registering for local health services, students literally navigate the maze of foreign bureaucracy.

Camille shares her experience: “The first challenge is the administrative part. It's not always very clear, and not everything is necessarily in English. The university system doesn't work the same way as what we're used to. For example, in some countries, certain documents are required that we're not used to having, or original documents we didn't think to bring with us. In my case, to get the Italian social security number, it wasn't clear at all what needed to be done, and I had to figure out a lot on my own to get it.” Regarding the language barrier, Camille adds that when she arrived, no one spoke English at the foreign student reception office. “I didn't speak the local language, so it was really tough. Fortunately, we helped each other a lot.”

Federico, another international student, adds: “We also had many administrative difficulties in France. To get my carte vitale, there was no option to check 'foreigner' for the place of birth on the application form, which completely blocked the process. So, I had to go in person, but at that time, I didn't speak the language, and no one spoke mine or English, which made things even more complicated.”

For Sarah, the language barrier was more about accents and writing styles: “In my country, I learned English in a certain way. I heard it a certain way and had never experienced other accents or heard a foreigner speak English with their local accent. So, when I heard English with an Italian accent for the first time, I genuinely wondered if it was English! Writing was also a big problem for me: I come from a country where we speak and write in Persian, with a completely different script and alphabet. Even though I learned the Western way, seeing letters written differently from what I was taught at school was very destabilizing. And then, at the university's reception office, no one spoke English, and I didn't know a word of Italian. It was really complicated, even though La Sapienza in Rome is supposed to be an international university! Can you believe that?”

Different educational systems: Learning new ways

Each country has its own educational system, with specific teaching methods, evaluations, and expectations. Adapting to a new system can be confusing at first, but it's also an opportunity to acquire new skills and discover different educational approaches. 

Camille shares: “In class, the school system is quite different. For example, in Italy, there are fewer class hours but more homework, so you need to learn to be autonomous quickly! University professors often arrived late, and this seemed normal to everyone, but it was quite confusing for me at first. Group projects are conducted differently, and the academic calendar isn't the same. You learn to adapt and understand these differences over time.”

Sarah explains that maintaining her scholarship was a significant challenge: “It's a real challenge for someone from a non-EU country. Here's how it works: you get 5000 euros per year for your studies, but to obtain and renew it, you need to pass certain exams and attend specific classes. In my first year, I did everything to get the best grades to ensure I would have it for the following year. Studying for these specific exams takes a lot of time and is very stressful because not only do you need good grades, but your financial situation is also at stake.”

Integrating with local students can be challenging

Both Camille and Federico agree that integrating with local students isn't easy. International students tend to stick together. Camille says: “I think it depends on where you go; you may find it easier or harder to integrate with locals. In my case, I didn't form many strong connections with local students because they already had their established groups. It was difficult to break into their circles. We mostly stayed among Erasmus students, although I did make some local friends outside the university.”

Federico also found it difficult to integrate with French students: “They tended to stick together and didn't necessarily want to form bonds with other international students.”

Despite these daily challenges, Camille, Federico, and Sarah affirm without hesitation that this experience has been one of the most enriching of their lives, and they wouldn't trade it for anything. Studying abroad offers a wealth of experiences, and the chance to immerse oneself in a new culture while learning is what continues to attract more young people to take the leap despite the hurdles.