IT’S been a little over two years since I started my undergraduate journey at The University of Iowa in the United States. I will graduate in May.
The experience I have acquired so far may prove valuable to others who are considering a similar path, one that takes them out of their home country for the pursuit of higher education.
Let’s start at the beginning. As I was nearing the completion of the Diploma in Creative Writing course at the Puncak Perdana campus of Universiti Teknologi MARA, I thought about taking my studies a step further.
In my quest for the best place to study creative writing, the institution that popped up the most frequently was The University of Iowa. I took this to mean that I would not consider any other university and applied only to the tertiary institution. Though I got lucky and was accepted into the college, in hindsight it was not very smart to apply to one university only; you should always apply to several colleges as a rejection is always a possibility. That is the first lesson to take away from my journey. I often ask freshmen if a certain university was their first choice, and it is always a mixed bag of answers.
At first, I found it odd that most universities, which I had previously considered applying to (before learning about The University of Iowa), do not enrol international students in the first semester of the year in January. I later suspected that it may be due to the intensely cold weather that foreign students, especially those who do not experience winter, will not be accustomed to.
Regardless of the season in the US, always check the weather at the campus. Seasons are not fixed points of a year where the weather magically shifts once the allocated period is over. When I first arrived in the US on Dec 28, 2015, a snowstorm delayed my connecting flight to Iowa by two days. Spring was supposed to start two weeks later and the temperature was averaging -4.4°C. So, make sure you pack a coat in your carry-on luggage when you travel to a country where it is cold.
You may get delayed before you reach your final destination, and won’t have access to your main luggage. While we are on the topic of the cold, do not forget to layer up to keep warm. Always wear a thick wool scarf and earmuffs as your ears will hurt in the cold. Earmuffs look horrendously unfashionable but feeling like your ears are going to fall off is not much fun. It will take time to adjust to the weather especially if you are in the colder parts of a country that experiences winter. Not all parts of a country with four seasons will experience the same degree of cold. If you shiver in an air-conditioned room in Malaysia, you may want to consider studying in a country which does not have winter or has a mild one.
One thing that may not immediately become obvious until it is too late is picking the hours for your classes for a schedule that is manageable. There are two things you need to pay attention to here. One, are you a morning person? Schedule for classes in the morning. Two, are you a night owl? Schedule for classes in the afternoon. This ultimately depends on how you think you can manage, but I strongly suggest that you try to sign up for classes at later hours of the day if possible, especially in your first and last semesters.
For the first semester, it is better to acclimatise to the climate as this disrupts the circadian rhythm. For the last semester, it is better to relax; keep your mornings free so you do not stress over days that start early. You may think you are training to enter the workplace where you must get to work early in the morning. But keep in mind that your working life will be primarily focused on one subject. Classes at university cover several subjects taking into account non-major classes that most universities require students to take.
And not all classes take place near each other on large campuses. Always try to give yourself at least an hour between classes to allow time to get to your next class without rushing. This will help to reduce tension in an already stressful environment and your mental health will be crucial in the days to come.
Time management is crucial in this environment. Make time for studies, meals, rest and, most importantly, fun. It can be easy to forgo fun in the pursuit of higher education when you rationalise it as preparation for the future. But being able to stop and question yourself at any point in life regarding your happiness and say that you are happy go a long way. You do not want to survive, you want to live life. Also, never take an 8am class, even my professors hate those. You will miss a class scheduled at that time.
But here is an additional thing you should consider in your timetable. Get a part-time job. Most big universities have jobs all year round at their many different facilities, from being a cashier, dishwasher and librarian to security guard. Even if your expenses are covered by scholarships or you live a comfortable enough life without having to worry about money, I still recommend an on-campus job. Working teaches valuable life skills that books do not teach. You learn to deal with strangers and work with colleagues whom you may or may not like. These are skills that you will apply later in life. And it does not hurt to have extra pocket money and you develop a respect for well-earned money, which makes you more responsible for it. You can also pick a job where you are allowed to read a book and do homework. Kill two birds with one stone.
Also, considering the current exchange rate of the Malaysian ringgit and US Dollar, it is great to be paid in a stronger currency.
Now let me touch on something I have not done too well in but you should do better. Make friends. In the fall of last year, 33,564 students were enrolled at The University of Iowa. This is in stark contrast to the average student population of 5,000 each across UiTM’s 13 state and 21 satellite campuses, with a total of 168,865 for the year 2015
With numbers similar to The University of Iowa at other US universities, there are so many potential friends from all over the world to be made.
One of the main factors in choosing to study abroad is the expansion of your perspective. See the world by meeting people who may have different views.
We are not alone in this world, we are not meant to be alone. Make friendships that last, a buddy that you can study with, a pal that you can go hangout with or a friend who can cook good food for you if you buy the ingredients. Friendship is the most valuable thing you take away from college next to your education. Perhaps you may even one day find yourselves working together in the future.
Good luck, study smart.
Emillio Daniel is an adventurous English and Creative Writing student at The University of Iowa in the United States. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org