I think the experience of studying abroad is one that too many students pass up during their high school years. It is impossible to create something similar once you have finished your degree and received your diploma. As university students, we keep ourselves busy with extracurricular activities and work, because we aspire to be a bit different from those who are trying to do the same and are studying for the same degree. Every free minute of the day is taken up with sleep, relaxing, friends and family. For me, studying abroad was a way of leaving all this behind and slowing down for a moment.
I started thinking about studying at university in the UK when I was in my last year at grammar school, preparing for my Maturita exam. I was really interested in criminology, but the options for studying this field in the Czech Republic were limited. I found an agency on the internet which helps students with university applications, and I was amazed when I saw all the fields which were available in the UK. Really, you can find anything you can think of, and every field of study seems super cool.
In Autumn 2016, I went to Prague for a meeting with people from the agency. Young Czech students who were studying at university in the UK described the process by which new students were accepted, showed us how the UCAS system works, and told us about the next step in our application. Still, it was a tentative meeting. They talked about everything they had had the chance to experience, and about everyday life as a student abroad. What I needed to know about above all was how to get a student loan, because I could not afford to pay school tuition fees in advance. The services of the agency were free of charge. They helped me with everything, and I realized that it was not impossible and unaffordable even for me, as the loan terms really were convenient. That is when I knew I wanted to start studying for my university degree abroad, and I started working on my application.
My application was sent to three universities in the UK, two in Wales, one in the capital city, London. I chose a three-year programme – Law with Criminology. My favourite was Bangor University in Wales, which had a high ranking for its Law. Because of Bangor, I had to take a special language test and prove that my English was C1 level. I got a good result in the test and was accepted. I finished grammar school and passed my Maturita exam. The summer started , I kept myself very busy. I had no time to think about leaving for university in September.
I had no problem with travelling and being alone, but it is different to be “left on your own”.
I took an evening flight from Prague to Manchester and arrived in Bangor by train at night. I had absolutely no idea where to go; no one was waiting for me. I still remember the first night as one of the worst and hardest experiences of my year abroad. I had to change train three times. I had no idea how trains in the UK work, how much things cost, what I needed to buy and where to buy it. It was winter, and it was very, very cold. Having arrived in Bangor, I had to drag my luggage all over the city to find where I would be staying.
That night I found out the city was really hilly, and that my halls happened to be on the top of the tallest hill. When I finally found the halls, I could not find anyone to open the room for me. It took me some time before the night service came. When they finally did, that was it! My room for the next three years, I thought. It was still super cold, and I was exhausted, hungry, stressed and had no blanket or pillow. I took a shower and that first night I slept under a wet towel. That was my first disastrous night in the UK. But that was the bad night. The next day I went to a shop to buy blankets and pillows and prepared for the first day of school. The university halls were a really crazy place. The things we see in American films really do happen in university halls! There are really cool rugby players who date cheerleaders, theatre and cinema groups that hold auditions for their recitals, zoologists and computer programmers. All you can think of, and you, too, can be a part of it.
Although I really enjoyed school, the legal English we had to use was a bit hard for me at first. I met so many people, and everyone I met wanted to be friends with me, go to parties, meet up, have study sessions together… I have learned that people around the world are different and that our Czech reality is not the only one.
I started liking Law, which was more interesting and enjoyable for me than the Criminology I had wanted to do in the first place. The Criminology seemed to me to be very theoretical and full of statistics. During the year I took the chance to attend many events I will remember for a long time. One such unforgettable trip was to the law fair in Manchester, where all the big law firms were presenting their work. I had the chance to be interviewed, and I was offered practice in the law firm for the second year.
In the UK, I met my best friend, who was Spanish, although her parents lived in Doha, Qatar, because of her father’s job as a pilot for Qatar Airways. Before our exams in the first semester, we had a “reading week”, which was a week without lectures, when students are supposed to study for exams. I thought that I would stay in Bangor and study, but my friend Hannah bought me a flight ticket to Doha to go and spend a week with her family. That was the most amazing experience I have ever had. On our return, we passed all of our exams.
But when I look at what I am writing now, it seems like I had everything figured out and it was all a dream ride. Well, it was not. To be honest, I had nothing figured out. During that time I had my ups and downs. I worked three jobs so I could afford university halls and some trips during the year. I did not waste money on things I did not need. The university hall was surprisingly more expensive than private accommodation, but I could not quit, because I had a contract for a year. At first, I doubted whether I had made the right choice in life. I did not like the fact that the city was hilly; everywhere I wanted to go was either up or down a steep hill. I was without my mother, who would have taken care of me when I was sick and brought me food from a shop which was far away and uphill by car. I had to do it on my own.
After a year, having completed the exams for the second semester, I decided to suspend my studies and come back to the Czech Republic (for some really sad family reasons). I started studying for a Law degree in Brno and working at the Czech Ombudsman’s Office. I went back to working with a children’s dance group. I do not know whether I will ever go back, but I do know that I am so thankful that I had the chance to experience it. Because of this year abroad, I learned what I really want to study. I learned how to be independent, and I appreciate the people in my life and do not take them for granted. Studying and living abroad is not easy, but it is definitely worth it.