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Lessons Learnt from First Foray Abroad

If you could prepare to study abroad with the benefit of the hindsight of those who have already done so, you would pack and plan, budget and spend, study and socialise in ways far different than those occurring to you now, ahead of your journey.

It’s hard to imagine how much you learn during and after your first visit or stay abroad as a student.

Photo: Ayesha Vemuri  

Ayesha Vemuri, who graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon as a Studio Art majors in 2008, says that in her anxiety to not be outfoxed by an unfamiliar place and its unknown costs, she packed way too much and ended up paying a hefty fee for going over the prescribed baggage allowance.

Rajyasri Rao spoke to Vemuri and asked her what else she may do differently if she were to go abroad now.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

What would you take with you and what would you leave out?

When I first left to go to the States, I had never travelled outside India before, and had absolutely no idea what would be available there, and more importantly, how much it would cost. So I ended up packing really badly, by which I mean I packed way too much stuff, and had to struggle with over 80 kilos of luggage at the airport. It also meant I was overweight – by a LOT – and had to pay extra at the check-in counter and was close to tears with all the stress of dealing with that all by myself.

“One thing to be prepared for is not having a lot of free time.”

And what was in those bags? A whole bunch of useless stuff, I must admit. I took a huge, heavy quilt that I ended up replacing soon enough with a far cosier comforter, way too many pairs of impractical shoes, books that I didn’t need and never ended up reading, and toiletries that easily lasted me a year, if not more.

So if I had to do it all over again, I’d keep it minimal. Only take what you absolutely need, since you’ll end up acquiring new things anyway.

In what form and in what quantities would you carry cards/money/foreign exchange/traveller’s cheques?

I carried about USD 500 in cash when I first went abroad, and I thought that was a good amount to cover basic expenses, travel and food for the first few weeks until you open a bank account. It’s good to make sure you have small bills, though, for things like buying that necessary coffee at the airport after a 20-hour long flight, and for getting a luggage cart at the airport for those 80 kilos of luggage. I also carried some more in traveller’s cheques, which I ended up depositing into my account when I opened it.

What arrangements would you make for your travel from your destination airport and for your stay at your destination city/town?

I was lucky enough to go to a college where all international students had a local guardian appointed by the college, who was basically responsible for making you feel comfortable and at home when you first landed in the country. Mine were kind enough to come and pick me up from the airport and give me nice comfortable room and delicious homemade food as soon as I arrived.

“If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably do much of the same, but I might spend a little more time exploring all the beauty of the country I was in and travelling a little more when I could.”

This kind of coddling only happens at small colleges, and definitely only at an undergrad level. If I had to go now, I’d look up public transport and the best ways to get from the airport to the university on either Google Maps or Mapquest, and figure out if there’s a convenient shuttle, tram or metro to take me where I’m going.

Failing that, I’d just take a cab, especially if I had a lot of luggage. For places to stay, definitely make arrangements beforehand to stay at a nice cheap little guesthouse or hostel – hostelbookers.com was a website I used all the time when I was in college.

What would be the first thing you do the moment you settle down after landing?

My favourite thing to do whenever I get to a new place is to go for a walk and take in the neighbourhood. Being a bit of a coffee fiend, I always scope out the best coffee shops in the area, followed closely by the best markets and restaurants in the area. Obviously, if you’re at a new university, exploring campus is one of the most exciting things to do, and I usually begin with figuring out the cafes and food halls first!

How differently would you budget your monthly expenses?

I’ve always been bad with money, and my first few months at college were no different, mostly because I didn’t budget my money at all! So yes, the first thing I’d do differently now is to actually begin with a projected budget of all my expenses (which tend to be higher when you first get there), categorize them according to home and school related stuff, and then prioritize them.

I’d make sure to leave myself enough money to actually explore my new city and have some fun – an essential part of moving somewhere new!

I’d get the absolute essentials first and then figure out what remains and decide when to get them, so that I don’t end up spending all my money in one go. I’d also make sure to leave myself enough money to actually explore my new city and have some fun – an essential part of moving somewhere new! 

How would you spend your free time?

One thing to be prepared for is not having a lot of free time. Colleges have a million activities to welcome and initiate new students, especially international students, and there are always lunches, dinners, parties and activities to attend. But that’s mostly all in the beginning, when new people are arriving and just getting to know each other. After that, it’s up to you to explore the city, visit libraries, go out dancing with new friends, and catch up on all the schoolwork that piles up in the meanwhile!

Who would you hang out with more?

A lot of international students tend to hang out together, and not really mingle much with everyone else, something I’d advise strongly against. I was lucky, in a way, to not end up at a college with lots of other Indian students, and that forced me to meet everyone else. I had friends from around the US and from countries like Romania, Ghana and France as well as India and Nepal. To me, that diversity of interaction was one of the best things about college life.

“A lot of international students tend to hang out together, and not really mingle much with everyone else, something I’d advise strongly against.”

In my third year, I became really close friends with a girl who grew up in the Portland area where my college was located, and that was amazing because it gave me an entirely new perspective on, and appreciation for, the city I had been living in for two years. So yes, making friends who are actually from that country and city is something I would definitely recommend.

What would you do more or less of with your time?

Even though four years can seem like a long time, my college years went by in a blur. If I had to summarize my experience in a word, it would be intense. That’s because there was always something to do – if not the massive amounts of schoolwork and reading that I was constantly struggling to finish, it was spending time with my friends, exploring the city, eating, cooking and learning to live alone, and of course, catching up on my sleep. If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably do much of the same, but I might spend a little more time exploring all the beauty of the country I was in and travelling a little more when I could.

Ayesha Vemuri graduated in 2008 from Reed College in Portland, Oregon as a Studio Art major, with a minor in Russian Literature. After spending some years as an artist-in-residence, a volunteer at an organic farm and an intern with a papermaking artist, she now works as a writer, researcher, social media evangelist and web designer at a design consulting firm in New Delhi.

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