My year abroad experience: Sophie Whitehead in Delhi, India

Delhi wasn’t my first choice of Year Abroad location – nor was it my second, or even my third for that matter. My idea was that I was going to live the high life in Berlin or Amsterdam, with my International Exchange application essentially an afterthought. A couple of months later I had an offer from Delhi, an Erasmus Exchange rejection and a desperate desire not to lose face, and found myself accepting the offer and consequently preparing to move to India.

Nothing can really prepare you for packing up your entire life and moving away from the familiarity of home. Details which I’d previously never considered – like getting a student visa, for example, were now things that I, and I alone, was responsible for. As someone who was not blessed with a huge amount of common sense, it was all too easy to rely on the idea that someone else would sort things out for me. I quickly realised that, despite various year abroad fairs and talks, people going further afield to study weren’t especially high on the International Office’s list of priorities; the one piece of Delhi-specific advice we were offered was to ‘take lots of passport pictures’.

Whilst that advice was helpful (you need passport photos for pretty much everything in India), it would perhaps have been useful to know some other things, too: where we would be staying, for example, or how to make the courses we were studying in Delhi translate to the Edinburgh credit system. Alerting the University of Delhi about our arrival would also have been useful (and would have avoided a rather frightful couple of hours where I was told that I was not, in fact, enrolled to study there).

Having spoken to friends who went on exchange elsewhere, this kind of experience is fairly ubiquitous; generally, it’s clear that the International Office don’t offer a sufficient level of support. Granted, they do send people to a huge number of different universities and I can imagine that it’s difficult to keep track of everyone, but that’s no excuse. Going abroad is a huge transition and students need more support.

That being said, the awareness that I was going it alone meant that I was forced into taking responsibility for my choices. There’s a certain kind of reward that comes with having navigated your way through the tribulations of moving away, with the added pressure of attempting to reintegrate into a new university – and of course, entire culture. Whilst there were inevitable difficulties in moving to somewhere as far away as India, I found that a lot of the problems that I faced were entirely based on Western misconceptions.  

In fact, India is a magical country, an assault on all senses in the most positive way. My time there – both academically and socially – was so incomparable to my experience in Edinburgh, but the chaos was (mostly!) refreshing. There’s a word in Hindi, jugaad, roughly translating to ‘making do’. This attitude, which is so prevalent to Indian culture, was so important in helping me to take a more laid back approach – both to the various tribulations of being on a year abroad, but also to life more generally.

Now that I’m back, I’m realising why everyone reminded me to just enjoy everything. I can now see how incredibly frustrating it must have been for my friends who had stayed in Edinburgh to see me embarking on a month-long trip round the South of India mid-November: conveniently slap-bang in the middle of essay season.

Depending on where you choose, a year abroad can offer a wealth of opportunities. For me, this was the chance to travel and experiencing a curriculum that wasn’t entirely Eurocentric. I have friends that had such academically rewarding years abroad that Edinburgh now feels like a step down.  If you’re sitting on the fence about applying for a year abroad, my advice is: do it! The application process takes minutes and there is always the opportunity to turn the offer down if you don’t fancy it.

If I can transform a series of unintentional decisions into potentially the best year of my life, then I’m certain anyone can.

 

image: Anamsadiq via Wikimedia Commons

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