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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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!
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’…
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.
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!
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.
This post is great! I’m a student at UCA and I am producing a magazine about student life and experiences. Do you think that I could use this article and pictures as part of my magazine? I would obviously credit it to you! i just couldn’t find anyone that had studied abroad!
Hi Sarah! Please email me at to tell me more about your magazine and your plans to use my article. Thanks, Evelyn.