*Making local friends is not a barometer of your success abroad! I just want to offer some advice about how to do so if this is the type of experience you’re seeking.*
Studying abroad, for me, was like entering into a bizarre kind of time machine that transported me back to freshman year but in a brand new place and with a lot more confidence. My drive to the airport was accompanied by the same nervous excitement I felt when driving up from LA for my move-in day at UCSB. As I waved goodbye to my parents in the airport to embark on my studies abroad I remembered waving to them from the lawn outside of my freshman year dorm and as I passed through security, I felt the same wave of sadness for a few minutes and then the rush of exhilarating independence and excitement for the journey ahead…
This was quickly subdued by the horrendous 24 hour travel fest which entailed delayed flights and lost baggage but at the end of a long day I made it to Edinburgh.
Living in the resident halls in Edinburgh during my time abroad only heightened this feeling of going back in time to my first year at University as I was once again enjoying dorm life surrounded by freshman and other international students. Your first few days at your new university will consist of a jam-packed “freshers week” with tons of events to not only help you get to know your new city but also to facilitate meeting other students at your university.
At first I was really unenthusiastic about a repeat of my own first week in college filled with miserable small talk with people whose names would stay in my contacts until I could no longer put a face to them. However, once I decided to have a positive attitude and do my best to embrace the somewhat forced week of fun, I had a blast! Freshers ended up providing a brilliant opportunity to get out there and make some new friends. Unlike our nervous first week at our respective U.C. all those years ago, we now have the confidence to embrace this week for all it has to offer (though you may still get stuck in some uncomfortable small-talk). Last year I met my best friend by attending a day trip out to the botanic gardens and a year and a half later we’re still as thick as thieves.
I hesitate to build up unrealistic expectations of instant friendships evolving from this week like those classic college movies. These types of weeks can be incredibly intimidating for some (including myself) and not everyone enjoys the pressure of making friends in a rushed fashion just to avoid feeling lonely. I met some lovely people during ‘freshers’ but have not stayed close with many of them. If you don’t meet your best friend during that first week, don’t panic. Part of studying abroad is embracing independence and adjusting to being on your own for a bit. New friends will follow in time!
The second place I met some of my best friends, and subsequently my partner of a year and a half, was through my courses. Coming into third and forth year honours courses can be daunting as many of these students are already well established in their friend groups and may seem a bit closed off. That being said, it only takes one lovely soul to invite you out to make you feel at home. At Edinburgh, and I reckon many universities in the UK, you will be put into smaller groups during your tutorials or seminars to do independent projects which at Edinburgh fall under the title ‘ALG’s. These were where I met two of my closest friends and through these lovely ladies I was able to form a fantastic basis of close connections that live in the United Kingdom.
Finally, joining societies is a great way to make friends. Societies are like clubs back in the US and our universities in the UK and Ireland are jam packed with them. When you attend society events you’re likely to meet people with common interests who are happy to make some new friends. When I first got to Edinburgh I tried attending the “Murder Mystery Society” which was a great laugh but I didn’t exactly find life-long connections amongst the bunch who took the activity… a bit too seriously (whenever I pass them I still remember them by their character names and broad acting styles). If one society doesn’t suit your taste, keep sampling around because you’re bound to find one eventually. The University gym also offers fun classes like Hatton boxing where you have to pair up with a partner and day/weekend excursions so these are a great place to meet other students as well!
Studying abroad with UCEAP is a fantastic opportunity to get to know students from other U.C.s that you never would have met otherwise. I really enjoyed getting to know these students but I was also incredibly glad that I didn’t just spend time with people I met through the program. Because I lived in Edinburgh for the whole year and because I met people who reside here and throughout the UK permanently, I felt like I got a more organic experience abroad than I would have if I’d not pushed myself to spend time with my course mates. If you only meet international students or Americans, there can be an inclination to pack in as many trips across Europe as possible which, don’t get me wrong, is fantastic! However, it’s good to remember at the end of the day that you chose to study in Scotland and I’d recommend spending as much time making your host country feel like home as possible. I frequently hear returnees from their programs lament that they didn’t get to spend enough time making the most of their host country! This will transform your experience abroad from one of tourism to one of residency.
I definitely experienced some lonely nights as I adjusted to meeting new people but it was worth it in the long run to have some tremendous, truly life-long connections here in Scotland and down in England. It was because I built such a strong network of local friends that I ended up spending nearly every weekend either in Edinburgh or traveling around Scotland which made me love this country so much that I moved back here for my internship.
The difficult part of all of this will be leaving those you’ve grown to love at the end of your time in the UK or Ireland but the amazing flip-side is being able to travel back someday and see all of them again.