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Making Your Host University a Home: How Women’s Soccer Transformed My Study Abroad Experience

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As I prepared to go abroad in the fall of 2016, one question continued to worry me about my upcoming studies: how was I going to get involved in a community that I only got to spend half a year with?
After all, one of the most significant reasons that had motivated me to study abroad with IFSA-Butler was the idea of directly enrolling into a university. I didn’t want to be traveling with people from my home university; I wanted to immerse myself in a new school, and engage with the students and community there. The problem was that I just didn’t know how to do this. I’d become so used to the organizations that I’m involved in at my home university, and the friends that I have there, that I wasn’t even sure if I knew how to join new things or make new friendships anymore, especially in a new country.

Without a real plan, I found myself struggling to make non-American friends at Oxford during my first few weeks there. Nearly everyone living in my accommodation building was also an international student; a majority of them were actually Americans, studying abroad for a year or two terms (which is the equivalent to one American spring semester), just like I was. I thought I might have a chance to make British friends in my academics, but all of my tutorials were one-on-one with my tutor — which was an excellent opportunity in lots of other ways — and a majority of my lectures had been given the term before I arrived. I spoke to one of my friends from home about what I could do, and she asked me a question: if I was a freshman all over again, how would I make friends?

I almost instantly knew the answer. I could distinctly remember signing up for about 20 tables at my university’s activity fair during my freshman year — if anything sounded even remotely interesting, I put my name on their email list. I did it to be able to do things I enjoyed, but I also did it to make new friends on campus and integrate into the community. I asked myself: would this strategy work again? Because I began my study abroad experience in Oxford’s Hilary term, I had missed the Fresher’s Fair in the previous term, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t still join a club. It was just going to take a little bit of extra effort!

Joining the Team: First Impressions

Oxford had so many organizations that I could join, but I chose to reach out to the Oxford University Women’s Association Football Club(also known as the OUWAFC). A sports team was going to give me the chance to fill up some free space in my schedule, and to meet new people and spend more time with them. So, rather nervously, I sent a message to the captain of the Women’s II team. I hadn’t played soccer since my first year of university, and I knew I wasn’t in the best of shape, but I still really wanted to play a sport I loved with a team of people who had an entirely different experience playing it. To my surprise, the captain got back to me in less than 24 hours, and asked if I could show up for a practice the very next evening!

Suddenly, I was part of the team. After I showed up to the first practice, the captain told me I was good enough to stay on the squad for the rest of their season. My free time was suddenly replaced with practices, scheduled about three times a week, and games on Wednesdays. I had to figure out where all sorts of new locations were around Oxford; there were sports fields scattered all about, and gyms even more so. Although many people ride a bike in Oxford, I elected not to (because directionally, I’m not particularly apt), and so I found myself taking 30 minutes to walk across the city to University Parks or other locations. This was the first thing that playing soccer really did for me; it got me out and about in the city in ways that I had yet to do on my own.

“Scoring” My Friendship Goals

Once I started settling into the team, it was like I had always been there. The girls on the II team (more fondly known as the Furies) welcomed me in instantly. They added me into group chats about practices, which became group chats about post-practice dinners, which became group chats about all sorts of things to do with one another. Together, we complained about bad practice conditions and cheered when we did well. They answered every question I had about Oxford, whether it was about which restaurant was the best or what some strange vocabulary word meant. They loved hearing what I had to say about my hometown, or what I thought of Oxford. In the span of perhaps two weeks, I went from feeling like I had no connection to Oxford, to having over fifteen teammates who I could call my friends and discovering tons of new places that I loved.

One of my favorite memories from being abroad occurred because I was on this team. At the end of the Hilary term, the Furies had the traditional Varsity match against Cambridge. Every team in Oxford plays Cambridge in a Varsity match, and has for many, many years. It’s a time for rivalry, good competition, and university spirit. My team captain and coach picked me as part of the squad to play in the game, and there was no feeling like stepping onto that pitch and knowing I was getting the chance to participate in a long-standing, popular tradition. We got special gear for the match (I’ll now forever have an OUWAFC jersey with my last name on it, and my own kit!) and it was all we could think about for at least a week beforehand. We lost, after double overtime and penalty kicks, but the joy and camaraderie that came in that moment was unparalleled.

Victory On (and Off) the Field

Taking a risk and reaching out to the team’s captain had paid off. I learned and participated in Oxford traditions, I visited more colleges than I ever would have alone, and I got to know Oxford as a city. Most importantly, however, I got to engage with a community of girls that I would have never met, and they taught me about the place that they had chosen for their own university education, a place that they loved dearly. It wasn’t always easy. It was a time commitment on top of Oxford’s academic rigor, and I had decided to join a couple other societies as well (how could I resist the Harry Potter Society?) My journey with the football team certainly wasn’t the easiest path I could have taken — but if you’re lucky, as I was, you’ll conclude your time abroad with friends that you’re going to keep in touch with, even when you’re time zones apart. Studying abroad is about taking a challenge, whether it be inside the classroom or out of it. Step outside of your comfort zone, and engage with your community; it will change and improve your study abroad experience more than you can ever know!

Madison Bunderson is a student at Sewanee: The University of the South and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Oxford, St. Edmund Hall in Oxford, England.