Photographic identification on metro passes, dining halls open for only half an hour and sports practices scheduled until 2 a.m. — Cornellians studying abroad for Spring 2023 are met with a great variety of novel experiences that they say are both challenging and exciting.
“It’s always been my dream to be a student at Oxford,” said Tatiana Bustos ’24, who is studying in the United Kingdom.
Taking English courses at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford University, Bustos attended weekly one-on-one meetings with her instructors to discuss readings, receive feedback on her assignments and ask questions.
“I have not gone to any lectures,” Bustos said. “It’s not really required and doesn’t have anything to do with my tutorials. It’s very independent work that you’re expected to do here.”
Still, according to Bustos, given the distractions and opportunities available abroad, this seemingly light schedule can be hard if one is not self-motivated and holding themselves accountable.
However, for Skylar Xu ’24, who is taking philosophy and film classes in Paris, lectures are the key for academic success.
“At Cornell, I mostly took seminars in the humanities and there’d be a lot of class discussions,” Xu said. “Here, it’s more lecture-based and there seems to be a heavier focus on concrete text — sometimes you have to read an entire book for class.”
Ellie Zhang ’24, studying business in Spain, feels most excited about the international perspective she is opened up to.
“I have people from Portugal, Germany, London — all over the world — in my classes,” Zhang said. “It’s interesting to learn the international experience on a lot of the topics I learned in my finance classes at Cornell. For example, [one great topic is] how much this meal we’re eating would cost in their home country.”
Xu is starting to get used to learning in French, given that the program through which she is studying abroad — EDUCO Consortium in Paris — offers classes taught only in French.
Zhang would experience hiccups like going to a coffee shop and not knowing how to order, or having to use Google translate while communicating with salespeople for important purchases. But she said the language barrier has been permeable because of the presence of many English speakers in Madrid.
Same is the case with Amy Hidalgo ’24 in Singapore, who thinks the Singaporean lifestyle itself is very American and therefore not too difficult to adjust to.
“People usually speak Singlish, which incorporates Hokkien, Mandarin [and] Malay. And sometimes people’s words, grammar or slang is different from what I’m used to,” Hidalgo said. “Socially people are pretty similar to Americans, so I didn’t find it hard to get along with people.”
Communities and Friends
For Hidalgo, community at the National University of Singapore was anticipated because of the dormitory system.
“Their dorms are very close-knit communities — for example, [the school] has 20 different sports teams for every dorm and they compete in inter-dorm competitions,” Hidalgo said. “People are super involved — you know everyone on your floor and are friends with people who you live next to you.”
Xu would also agree to some extent, as she made friends through kitchen conversations.
“I’ve been able to meet friends in unconventional ways — with people living across the hall when we share the kitchen and have conversations,” Xu said.
After a group project meeting that went on until 1 a.m., Hidalgo learned the culture of staying up late in Singapore.
“They also have sports activities that meet at 11 p.m. and go until 2 a.m. They order a meal after dinner almost every night. We still have 8 a.m. classes.” Hidalgo thinks this culture might be in part because classes only meet once a week, so students do not have packed schedules.
Though Bustos has been able to meet students from different countries through mixers designed specifically for visiting students, she struggles to meet British students.
“I know people in my hall, but it’s tough especially because the third year is the last year [in UK universities], so they’re already in their groups,” Bustos said.
Regardless, she got involved with drama events and has crewed for the musical “The Addams Family” organized by her college.
“It feels like Fall semester of freshman year — meeting everyone during orientation, asking their names, hometowns, planning lunch,” Zhang said.
Zhang finds this aspect of building community from scratch exciting, but she misses the support system and people she loves and appreciates in Ithaca.
There are still many practices that are inherently hard to adjust to coming from an American collegiate lifestyle.
“One of the biggest adjustments from life at Cornell is the [Oxford’s] dining hall situation,” Bustos said. “Every campus has its own dining hall — you go to your one dining hall. There are very restricted hours — for example, you can only get breakfast Monday to Saturday from 8:15 a.m. – 8:45 a.m. and if you miss it, it’s gone. You pay individually for every item you put on your tray.”
The college Bustos goes to also has a formal dinner every night which students have to sign up for 24 hours in advance online.
“Tables are all set with cutlery and they serve food to you — you have to stand up when the deans come in,” Bustos said. “They sit in the front row and everyone else sits down the hall, so that’s very interesting.”
Though Hidalgo does not enjoy the quality of her on-campus food compared to Cornell’s, she finds good food off campus that is very cheap compared to U.S. prices.
“They have so many different types of cuisine, and it’s pretty friendly to people with dietary restrictions,” Hidalgo said. “At the dining hall they separate Halal and non-Halal cutlery and provide meat options that are not beef for Hindus, for example.”
Expectations Versus Reality
There were many things that Cornellians could not have prepared themselves for at their study abroad destinations.
“Material-wise what things are made out of is very different — it’s a shock to the eyes,” Hidalgo said. “The different types of trees and how green Singapore is is something to get used to.”
For others, navigating the transportation system can be difficult.
“For metro passes in Paris sometimes you need to put your photo on the pass,” Xu said. “They inspect it and sometimes sneak attack if you haven’t — so it’s a very disciplinary system.”
Xu added that it has been interesting to live through the nationwide strike in France.
“I see posters. I hear people talk about it. I watch people canvass. The transportation disruption — I’ve never experienced a strike before on this scale,” she said.
Bustos has been pleasantly shocked by her spacious dorm room.
“My favorite thing is my dorm — I have my own sitting area, a huge room with two beds, a bathroom and it’s so, so nice,” Bustos said. “Incredible, 10/10, amazing.”
The hefty pound-to-dollar conversion sometimes takes Bustos by surprise.
“I’ve definitely spent way too much money here without realizing. I always think things are pretty cheap but then realize, ‘Oh I just spent 30 dollars at dinner because I thought it was only 20 dollars,’” Bustos said.
Overall, the experience exceeded her expectations, which she said were already very high.
Hidalgo, who didn’t come with many expectations, is taking the stress-free schedule as an opportunity to focus on her health, tackling procrastination habits and other aspects of life.
Taking things as they come and being positive has been Zhang’s mentality.
“Everything I’ve been able to experience — the good and the bad — is a learning experience,” Zhang said. “It’s so cool. I’m so lucky.”
Xu appreciates the freedom that the temporary nature of study abroad allows.
“It’s like my imprint is on this city and the imprint of the city is on me,” she said. “It gives me a lot of freedom to think.”
“As cliche as it is, it’s a life-changing opportunity,” Zhang said. “When are you able to live with no strings attached and no responsibilities in a completely new country and continent?”
In Hidalgo’s view, one gets out of the study abroad experience only what they put in.
“Life really is what you make out of it,” she said. “If you come here but don’t explore, try clubs, try new things, your life can basically be the same as it was in the U.S.”
Pareesay Afzal ’24 was an assistant news editor on the 140th board. She is currently a news staff writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She can be reached at [email protected].