It’s so different here

Savoring the challenges of spending all four college years abroad
By MARY GARBODEN  |  January 18, 2008
TRINITY COLLEGE, DUBLIN: accepts four-year international students. The school was founded in
1592, but the reunions haven’t been the same since Jonathan Swift stopped coming.

These days, it’s difficult to find somebody who hasn’t spent at least part of his or her college career overseas. “Semesters abroad” wasted in Spain or spent living on bread and cheese in Paris are practically unavoidable.

But some students take it a step further and study abroad for the full four years, or for a postgraduate degree. Under-21 drinking ages and guys with cute accents aside, there are lots of sound reasons to seek out a “foreign” education. That said, it certainly isn’t for everyone.

I speak from experience: I went to Trinity College, Dublin for my undergraduate degree and, having loved my time there, went on to London for my master’s. Not only did the experience give me first-hand insight into English and Irish cultures, but discount airlines and proximity to the EU afforded easy access to all sorts of places throughout Europe, taking the concept of the weekend roadtrip to a whole new level.

Then there’s the matter of money. Overseas tuitions can be a lot cheaper. At Trinity, for example, a full-time (non-Irish) undergraduate student studying English currently pays about $21,400 per year; at University College London, an English degree costs Americans just under $22,400 annually. An equivalent course at Yale costs $34,530 per year. (US student loans are available to Americans studying abroad, but don’t expect any needs-based or merit scholarships from the European schools.)

Don’t get too excited about (relatively) cheap tuition, though. With the dollar in the toilet and with the Euro and the British pound going strong and stronger, living costs in Europe can be truly sickening by American standards. As I write this, one Euro is worth $1.47 and trust me, you don’t wanna hear about the pound. My fellow Americans abroad and I have established the system of going to the States for Christmas with empty suitcases and returning with them stuffed full of cosmetics and boxes of mac-and-cheese. (Even if the customs guys think you suffer from an odd form of OCD, it’s worth it — in Boston, my mascara costs $11. In London, the exact same item is $19.70.)

Pretty much on your own
In the States, education is treated as a product to be bought and sold. Irish and British schools see it as more of an open opportunity, due to their government-funded fees systems (translation: every college operates like a state-subsidized college in the US). As a result, Americans are often surprised by the lack of “service mentality” at overseas universities. Many European schools don’t even offer meal plans. For me, this was exciting and a perfect fit. Others may want/need to be coddled a bit more.

Heather Reagan, an American who did her MA in sociology at Goldsmiths College in London, had some trouble adjusting to this “you figure it out” approach.

“My first phone call home was a $50 credit-card call because it was the only way I could figure out how to do it,” she says. “I didn’t even know the country code for the United States.

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