How small acts of kindness transformed my year abroad

17 Mar

Studying abroad? Here’s why the small acts of kindness mean so much, and why you should give something back to the international student community

If you’ve recently returned from studying abroad you’ll remember how daunting everything seemed at the beginning of your experience. Arriving in a foreign country with jet lag and a single suitcase suddenly makes all the little things incredibly important. The smallest acts of kindness from people in your host country can help make you feel at home, from the kind passenger on your outbound flight to the welcoming student ambassador who showed you to your new halls of residence.


Many of these comforting encounters begin before you arrive. Before I studied abroad in South Carolina, I was lucky enough to meet up with Spencer, an American student who was on exchange in England. While I’d been given plenty of information from the study abroad office, it was great to hear about my host community first hand so I could truly get a sense of what to expect out there in the Palmetto State. What’s more, we stayed friends. As an exchange student who didn’t know a soul in America, making just one American friend who knew about the ups and downs of studying abroad was immensely reassuring.


Then there were the small acts of kindness I encountered on arrival. When I made an offhand comment about enjoying sports to Stefano, a student ambassador, he asked if I’d like to join his intramural volleyball team. Having just arrived I thought it was probably a polite gesture, but it later became another friendship, which turned into an international volleyball squad made up of his American friends and my British buddies.

There were countless other instances of generosity and hospitality throughout the year. There was the CVS employee who gave me discount because I was using recycled shopping bags. There was that bookstore guy who stuck a ‘for rent’ sticker on an expensive new book because there were no cheap second-hand ones left. There was my friend Emily who would always check to see if I needed to get groceries before she drove to Publix. There were my Trek America campmates who pitched my tent when I was sick. Then, unforgettably, there was my American flatmate Sanne who invited me to her house for Thanksgiving (which was three months away) within five minutes of meeting each other. 10407419_10154214701390585_7405287887855901787_n

Why do the little things, which seem so coincidental and disconnected at the time matter so much when you study abroad? I’ve been reflecting on my year ever since I got back last June and I’ve realised that it’s those everyday unexpected gestures, above all else, that seem so clear and unforgettable.

When you study abroad, the small things that you take for granted at home suddenly feel like daily obstacles. I lost all sense that there were ‘big’ things and ‘small’ things to tackle, but there was an overwhelming list of daily obstacles that felt equally immense. Where is my class today? Where can I get my new student card? How do I set up a bank account? What if I don’t make friends?!


So those small acts of kindness became a string of tangible and meaningful experiences to hold onto when my surroundings felt alien and unknown. Those moments made me feel at home when home felt like it was worlds away. In fact, they helped me to make a second home for myself within a new world.

wal mart

Those moments didn’t merely improve my year in South Carolina: they defined it. Those welcoming and accessible links made me feel part of an international student community that looked out for me regardless of where I was and where I’d come from. It’s precisely those gestures that remind me of the importance of giving something back to that community, whether it’s chatting with outgoing students about what to expect, signing up to a buddy scheme or just helping an international student with directions.

So if you’ve studied abroad and want to give something back, remember that it doesn’t matter how small an insignificant act of kindness might seem to you. When you help an exchange student, it’s just the kindness that matters, because when you study abroad, all the small things and the big things roll into one giant adventure.

10435843_10154288286280113_2245153624072383149_n I wrote this blog post for You can view it on their website here.

25 emotional struggles of being a final year student

9 Mar

…as demonstrated by my cat. Take it away Fudge.

I’ve had the most amazing summer. I can’t face even thinking about packing for university, there’s just too much…stuff.

This is probably all I need.

I get a headache just thinking about all the work I have to do this year. Make it stahhp.

I’ll just go out tonight instead. That’ll solve it.

Walk into the club like...

Walk into the club like…

That was AWESOME. It’s 4am and the room is spinning. I have SO MUCH to do tomorrow.


No. NO. This can’t be happening. I’m never, drinking, again.


That’s better.

Urgh I drunk texted last night! I should probably send a mature follow-up message to explain my actions.

Right, now that’s sorted, WORK. Time to move into the library all day every day.

Needed energy drinks. Had energy drinks.

Must. Stay. Awake.

Must. Stay. Awake.

Feeling pretty good, I submitted that essay with a comfortable 30 seconds to spare.

I'm so on top of my life right now.

I’m so on top of my life right now.


No. It can’t be. It’s Christmas in a week!

Everyone else is festive and what am I getting for Christmas? Stressed. I’m getting stressed.

Don't tell me what to do.

Don’t tell me what to do.

I got fat too. I got stressed and fat for Christmas.

Don’t even remind me that it’s January already. I’m not ready for that kind of comedown.

Won’t go back. Can’t make me.

Should probably unpack my things and get back to the library. 

It's worse than I remember.

It’s worse than I remember.


Bumped into Margot in the library today. She asked me how my dissertation is going.


The conversation did not end well.

I wonder how Margot’s dissertation is going. Maybe I’ll ask her.

Only a few weeks to go and I’m feeling full of energy, at the top of my game.

I don’t know if I can make it

Just have to keep calm and think of summer…

To be continued….

10 things I wish I’d known before studying abroad in the US

22 Feb

Last year I swapped my steady student life in Leeds, England, for an unforgettable exchange year in South Carolina. I waved goodbye to weekends in the library and welcomed spending my spare time by the pool, exploring the US and watching American football games with my new international family. 1229944_10153197588695113_295444563_n (1)

I’ve realised that while the pre-departure support and advice I received from the study abroad office was second to none, there were just some things that briefings, orientation sessions and information booklets couldn’t have prepared me for. Here are ten things I wish I’d known before I plunged into my awesome year in the almighty USA:

You don’t need the extra suitcase

I totally regret taking an extra suitcase out to America, not to mention paying for it. I was so nervous about moving my life across the Atlantic that I tried to take it all with me. In the end, I didn’t use half the clothes and supplies and had to pay to ship them all back at the end of the year. If you’re going abroad, pack as light as you can- chances are you’ll want to buy new things in your host country anyway. suitcase

You won’t drink a good cup of tea all year.

Although I did pack too heavily, I wish I’d packed more teabags. If you’re a keen tea-drinker heading to America you’ll need to take a generous supply of your favourite teabag brand, because the chances of finding Yorkshire Tea or Tetleys in American supermarkets is extremely slim. 1175142_10153142825950113_158756582_n

Hope for the best but plan for the worst

When preparing to study abroad it’s best to adopt the mentality that the worst that could happen might just happen. It sounds negative, but that way, when you’re out in your host country and living independently, you’ll have a safety net of ‘Plan Bs’ that you ensured before you left. Make two copies of all your visa information. Take your laptop receipt in case you need to make an insurance claim. Most importantly, buy the most extensive type of insurance cover because it’s always better to be safe than sorry when you’re living in unfamiliar surroundings. 1175438_10153235128700113_576514204_n

Bid for a sorority early

I’ve always been intrigued by the phenomenon of sororities and fraternities and the polarizing reception they get in American universities. I ended my year abroad with a nagging curiosity and the regret that I never got to understand sorority culture from the inside. If you’re heading to America for a study abroad year, remember to check out sorority opportunities before you leave as they often start recruiting before you’re due to arrive. bid day

Studying abroad is an emotional cocktail (not a rollercoaster)
Before I departed for South Carolina I was told that I’d most likely go through phases of emotional adjustment, from ‘orientation’ to the ‘honeymoon stage’ to the ominous ‘disintegration’ phase. But everyone is different. I realised that my emotional experience in the states wasn’t a case of ups and downs, like a rollercoaster, but an emotional cocktail. I’d feel homesick, excited, overwhelmed and settled all at the same time. Even if the individual elements weren’t always to my taste, they never ceased to make for an overall concoction of discovery, anticipation and adventure. 1391661_10153414794925113_1337663628_n-2

‘Bless your heart’ is not a compliment

When I came to South Carolina I heard people saying ‘bless your heart’ and thought it was a term of endearment. Later in the year a friend told me it means something totally different. It’s actually quite condescending- a Southern way of saying something like, ‘No offense, but you’re pretty stupid.’ Thanks for the heads up! 1187141_10153252628835113_1783846883_n

There are no corner shops- just enormous supermarkets

Having spent my life in England I’ve always been within a few streets of a nearby corner shop (or convenience store, as Americans call it.) I never realised how much I take them for granted until I moved to America and the only convenience items available in the nearest shop were crisps and sweets: no milk, no eggs, no bread. This meant I had to plan my weekly shopping trips to Wal Mart with military precision if I didn’t want to go without my beloved cups of tea for the rest of the week. So much for ‘convenience’… wal mart

You’ll need more than just shorts and t-shirts

When I learned that temperatures in the Palmetto State stay mostly warm all year round, as a Brit long deprived of sufficient sunshine I went into overdrive packing bikinis, shorts and t-shirts. Little did I know that I’d need thick jumpers and socks for South Carolina’s first occurrence of snowfall in years. british snowman

Americans love driving more than you can possibly imagine
I had no idea just how much American driving culture would affect my year abroad until I arrived in Columbia. Despite being South Carolina’s capital city, Columbia isn’t pedestrian friendly to say the least. I quickly learned that being 21 without a driving license is the rare British exception to the American rule. There were so many times when I’d set out to the nearby town to find the pavement stop dead at my feet, turning my innocent shopping trips into questionable expeditions along the side of the road. Bless my heart! DSC02791

Reverse culture shock is worse than initial culture shock

As I was waiting for my inbound plane to pull in to the airport for a long return flight to the UK, I breathed a sigh of relief. I moved my life across the Atlantic for an entire year and had the most phenomenal time. What I didn’t expect was that the day-to-day impact of that year was far from over. Adjusting to life back home and parting with my new American family was one of the hardest and most unexpected trials of the whole year. While the shock went away within a few weeks, the reverse back to British culture will never be 100% complete. Wherever I go, I’ll always remember that there’s a welcoming American community out there in Columbia, South Carolina, that I’ll be sure to meet again sometime soon. 1167608_10154121806310113_7578574395160019972_o

On goodwill, social media and the North-South divide

17 Feb

Last summer I enjoyed my second work experience placement at The Liverpool Echo. While I was there, I had an unexpected and life-affirming experience. Here’s my speech about the incredible act of goodwill I encountered during my time there, which turned a seemingly ordinary two weeks into a summer I’ll never forget.

I gave this speech at Yorkshire’s renowned public speaking phenomenon, ‘Bettakultcha.’ It invites anyone and everyone to give a speech on any topic of their choice. What’s the catch? Stick to five minutes only, with 20 automated slides lasting 15 seconds each. Click on this link to get involved!

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A letter to my fresher self

4 Feb

Dear my fresher self,

Congratulations for choosing to study English and History, I know that careful decision took a long time. You’ve been accepted at Leeds and secured the accommodation you wanted at Clarence Dock. It must feel like you have everything worked out. That’s nice. Four years later you’ll have an arts degree under your belt yet still no grand life plan. Whatever people tell you, not knowing what you want to do for the rest of your life at 21 really is OK.


Packing for the big move…


My first year student halls

Despite choosing a Northern university you will spend most of your degree socialising with Southerners who talk about how great London is. In your final year, you will meet employers at networking events who will tell you about the benefits of moving to London and about how great London is. Be prepared to defend the North, love.

Don’t rush out to buy any of the set texts- especially not from the almighty rip-off that is Blackwells- find the books in the library or get them cheap on amazon.

There was really no need to email your tutor about missing the welcome lecture. Nobody takes attendance there, just a heads up.

Students can be…how should I put it…ruthless individuals. If you are late removing your laundry from the washing machine by even a minute you will find your freshly washed clothes gathering dust on the floor. 310607_10150832245100113_2023834161_n

Carnage is the most overpriced, overhyped and despicable sequence of events that could possibly be strung together in exchange for your precious money. It won’t do your bank account, your waistline, your self-esteem or your general well being any good. Please, just, don’t go.

Stop buying new fancy dress items for every fancy dress night out. That’s not what your student loan is for. Geek glasses and some face paint will suffice. 298520_10150899680830113_2003306070_n299800_10150918622820113_8638098_n

The Hidden Café is not a cutesy little coffee place you discovered by the miracle of getting lost in Freshers’ week. It is the most conspicuous place on campus to take your laptop, eat overpriced lunches and pretend that you are working.

There’s a corridor that connects the Edward Boyle library to the Roger Stevens Building- yes, really. Find it and use it- unless you in fact prefer climbing 10 flights of stairs and arriving at all of your English lectures sweating.

After your first year you’ll go on a life-changing trip to Costa Rica, during which staying in the jungle will make you feel as if you could conquer any living situation life will throw at you. But living in a below average student house with a broken boiler through the winter months in Leeds will make you drastically reconsider that statement. 199123_10152091047120113_1095390777_n

During your third year you’ll find yourself in South Carolina, enjoying a whirlwind year of cowboy boots and sweet tea, country music and American football, rock-climbing and travelling all over the US: basically having more fun and learning more life lessons than the rest of your university years combined. You’ll also hear about how great London is from Americans who went there once when they were 12. Savour that year, because time flies faster than a Gamecock when you’re studying abroad. 1148862_10153153567195113_790654073_n1267851_10153197620035113_1460927503_o

Returning to Leeds for a final year spent in the library will feel like the world’s biggest comedown. It is. The study abroad blues never go away, especially when you insist on putting peanut butter and jam on your porridge every morning. Make sure you stick to your hobbies and passions more tightly than ever before during fourth year, as you’ll need them in order to feel like a sane human being who is more than just a degree.

If I had to end with one piece of advice for your impending university experience, it would be to make it yours. Don’t get sucked in to what everyone else might be doing, because comparison kills joy. Don’t  compete with anybody but your former self: know your own values, priorities and goals and focus on exceeding those. Student life is your precious time to start figuring out who you’re going to be, so make it yours and get stuck in. 1229944_10153197588695113_295444563_n (1)

Sweet treats for your back to uni shopping haul

3 Jan

It’s January, and there’s nothing worse than the thought of returning to university for essay writing and exam stress. In the next week most students will be waving goodbye to luxurious home comforts and returning to our shabby chic (but mostly shabby) student houses. With the #newyearnewme social media onslaught in full swing, many are starting to get stuck into detox regimes and diet plans. But if you have a sweet tooth like me, you’ll be needing small, everyday pick-me-ups to take the sting out of exam season. Check out these delicious, inexpensive sweet treats that I’ll be taking back to Leeds:

Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-52-41-1Peanut Butter & Belgian Hot Chocolate
When I’m craving something sweet after my evening meal, making a hot chocolate is my go-to solution. I recently discovered ‘Peanut Hottie’ peanut butter flavoured hot chocolate and it didn’t disappoint. For those who don’t like nuts, try my staple hot drink: Options’ hot chocolate- at only 40 calories per mug you can’t go wrong. Both are available from Tescos, around £3.

Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-48-52-1 Organic Peanut Butter & Jam
I can’t start my day without a bowl of porridge. Since my study abroad year it’s become super Americanised by adding a dollop of peanut butter and ‘jelly’. These organic indulgences do just the trick, and are a cut above standard peanut butter and jam. Available from Holland & Barrett and most major supermarkets, around £3.

Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-45-09-1 Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-47-05-1Choccy Biscuit Spread
This Morrisons’ own chocolate spread is so delicious it almost started a war in our house. It tastes just like melted Ferrero Rochers, compressed into a tub for our chocolatey gooey enjoyment. It’s so good, we’ve all been eating it by the spoon and we’re #sorrynotsorry. Get Morrisons’ 4 tubs for £5 offer before they’re gone!

Lemon, Ginger & Manuka Honey Herbal Tea
This tea is definitely the healthiest treat on the list- but that doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t tickle the tastebuds. These flavours melt together to make a sweet, spicy and warming mug- great for relaxing just before bed. Available from most major supermarkets, currently on offer at Tescos for £1.50 in a variety of flavours, or Sainsbury’s for 2 for £3.

Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-54-24-1 The Body Shop Strawberry & Coconut Shower Gels
Of course these luxurious shower gels aren’t edible- but they smell good enough to eat. They’re a special treat and a nice change from budget shower products- also great to use in bubble baths. As you can see I just couldn’t wait to start using mine before driving back to Leeds! £4 each.

              Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-40-46-1IMG_20150101_162350Funky Country Honey & Amber Scented Candle
Anyone who knows me knows that I love to relax with some scented candles. Funky Country candles are a huge indulgence at £15 but worth every penny. With really unique flavour combos, they’re the best candles I’ve ever smelt and they last over 40 hours. Available from many boutique shops across Leeds, (mine was from Fodder at the Great Yorkshire Showground)- or via the Funky Country website.

How are you coping with the move #backtouni? Tweet me @EvelynHRobinson to share your coping strategies or chat about all #thingsbetterthanjanuary

I think I’m in Christmas denial!

10 ways you know you’re a final year arts student

19 Dec

Freshers’ week lasts forever…right?

I’ve made it halfway through my final year as a BA English and History student, and there’ve been many painful moments of realisation over the last few months. Despite my best attempts to keep the work-play mix in checks and balances, as I slump to the library for another daily grind I find myself lamenting the slow and painful death of my social life. Perhaps the saving grace stopping me from going completely mad is the fact that my course-mates seem to be going through the same thing. So here are ten symptoms well known to those battling through the final year of their arts degree:

You know exactly what you want to do after you graduate…just kidding
You’re really glad you chose an arts degree, because they have the best possible reputation for post-graduate employment, and you don’t know which job offer to accept next September. See you in Costa Coffee, future baristas.

Your social life has become that of an ageing bohemian
I never thought I’d go to a cheese and wine night until I was in my 30s, but arts students hold them regularly as a happy medium between a night on the town and a night on the sofa. Good food, great alcohol, even better company and none of the annoyances of jostling about in a sweaty nightclub with a bunch of strangers. It’s pretty em-mental. Sorry.

Someone just recalled the one library book you need over the Christmas holidays, and it caused you to have had an existential meltdown

But that’s the one book…what do they need it for…I can’t write my essay now…may as well not do it…why did I choose this degree…life is pointless.

You’ve finally given in to using a backpack daily

Remember that canvas tote bag that you used to use all the time? No, you probably don’t, because you ditched it in September when it became heavy enough to use as a hammer throw. Now you’ve succumbed to using your Roxy rucksack to carry your books to the library. Mum always did say something about comfort over style…


You’ve been studying so hard you forget which words are real- and invent your own

Last week, at the end of an eight hour library stint, I used the word ‘premacy’ in my essay, to discover that it is not a word, other than being the name for a Mazda minivan. Primacy is a word, as is pre-eminence, but premacy is definitely not a real word.

The Mazda Premacy is delightful but not what I need right now

The Mazda Premacy is delightful but not what I need right now

You’re buying lined paper at an abnormal speed

I swear I bought a new pukka pad last week and I’m already making notes on scrap paper. Where did it go?!

You worry about your argument in your daily life

Not arguments with real people, oh no. But the argument you’re meant to be having with all of the scholars you’re citing in your latest essay. Is my argument strong enough? Should I side with Winthrop or Koritansky? What is the meaning of all this?

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You get the best ideas when you aren’t studying and write them all in your phone
No matter how long you spend in the library, you’ll get the best ideas for your work when you spend some time away from it. Then a ray of brilliance shines down on your thought process, and you’re on the toilet, or out with friends. Who are you texting? Myself, actually…


Your sense of humour revolves around ironic socio-cultural references

This probably explains the cheese and wine nights. Where else will we fit in?

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You have dissertation complaint stand-offs with your course-mates

All discussions about final year projects have become a tirade of one-upmanship to vie for pity: I’ve only written 200 words. Yeah? I haven’t even decided on my title. Urgh.

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Despite starting to smell like a library, you wouldn’t have spent your degree any other way than exploring the wonderful, fascinating, inspiring and challenging world of the humanities. Let’s face it, maths was never an option.


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