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Studying Abroad in a Small Program – What’s it Like?

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My Study Abroad Experience

I studied abroad in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the spring 2016 semester.  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the Northern Irish culture and history, while focusing on academic subjects that sparked my interest.  I was able to take a class relevant to my major, Mathematical Statistics, as well as a course on religion and politics which covered some of the recent history of Belfast regarding “The Troubles.”.  My experience was unique in that I was the only person from Wake Forest to study in this program.  This meant I was travelling to an unfamiliar place with no close friends or family.  To say I was nervous was an understatement.  However, I wouldn’t be the same person today if it wasn’t for studying abroad at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).  This study abroad experience even motivated me to apply to graduate school at Queen’s University.  I will be attending QUB’s Management School to earn a MSc in Risk and Investment Management beginning in the Fall of 2018.

Why did I choose to go to this program alone?

Coming to college, I knew for a fact I wanted to study abroad somewhere in the U.K. or Ireland.  My family has a rich Irish history, and I had an interest in potentially going to graduate school in Ireland/UK in Mathematics or Statistics. At this point, I just wasn’t sure where in the UK/Ireland I wanted to study.  Researching programs in the U.K. and Ireland, I pretty much had my heart set on Dublin.  Dublin was one of the most popular programs, a lot of people from Wake Forest go there, and getting the true Irish experience was pretty much guaranteed there. However, I stumbled upon a fairly small program in a place I didn’t even know existed – QUB in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  After meeting with my study abroad office to go over the application process for the programs, my study abroad advisor let me know that no one from my school had ever been on this program.  I was kind of shocked, but it made me excited that I got to represent my school as the first student to study in Belfast.  I also took it as an opportunity to dive outside of my comfort zone and to get the most out of my study abroad experience.  I think choosing a smaller program was the best decision for my choice for study abroad.

How did I meet people?  How was it settling in without friends or family?

To be honest, I was completely unsure about how everything was going to work out upon arrival in Northern Ireland.  I had no idea how many others were in my program, nor did I know anything about the other people in my program.  All 6 people in my program at QUB were in the same boat – none of us knew each other, which I think was an integral part to forming close bonds within our IFSA program.  The orientation provided a means for everyone in our group to get to know each other through activities organized by the IFSA-Butler Ireland staff, as well as going out to eat in the city and exploring an unknown place.  The sense that we were all in a similar situation provided a comfort factor that fostered more enjoyment of exploring Belfast and all the city had to offer.

Orientation Week – your opportunity to get to know people!

Throughout orientation, my study abroad group helped each other properly prepare to move in to our accommodation at the university. We also discussed why we were studying in Belfast and got to know each other on a more personal level.  By the time international student orientation rolled around at QUB, we already had a core friend group and we were eager to meet even more international students at the orientation events.  During orientation, the amount of people we knew sky-rocketed and we felt even more at home.  Starting the semester on such a positive tone paved the way for a successful semester at QUB both socially and academically.

Still unsure about studying in a small program?

That is totally fine!  Studying at a small program like this might not be for everyone, but I can confidently say it was a rewarding and fun experience.  Going to bigger programs in Dublin, London, etc. with friends from your home university is great; however, you might be less tempted to go out of your way to meet new people in the area.  It is important to remember that it is up to you to go outside of your comfort zone.  It’s up to you where you go and what you do; however, it is how you make the most of your study abroad opportunities and explore the world as a student while you can. The motivation for study abroad programs is to allow students to enrich themselves in unfamiliar cultures, and I believe smaller programs, like QUB in Belfast, epitomize this philosophy to the fullest.  Personally, I gained a lot out of the small program experience.  I became more of an individual.  I became increasingly more willing to go out of my way to meet new people. I also formed amazing friendships and close bonds with friends from my program, who I even keep in touch with today!

Rob Sketch is a student at Wake Forest University and studied abroad with IFSA at Queen’s University Belfast in Belfast, Northern Ireland in spring 2017.